Variation in adrenocortical stress physiology and condition metrics within a heterogeneous urban environment in the song sparrow Melospiza melodia

Melissa L. Grunst, John T. Rotenberry, Andrea S. Grunst

Published online: 
27 June 2014

In urban habitats, organisms face unique fitness challenges including disturbance from human activity and noise. One physiological mechanism that may be plastically or evolutionarily modified to ameliorate deleterious effects of anthropogenic disturbance is the adrenocortical stress response. Individuals in urban environments may display smaller stress responses, which may prevent pathologies associated with consistent elevation of stress hormones, and may also show differences in baseline corticosterone (CORT, the primary avian stress hormone), due to altered energetic demands or chronic stress. We examined whether stress physiology and condition metrics in male song sparrows Melospiza melodia vary as a function of discrete differences in anthropogenic disturbance level (activity centers and refuges) or with continuous variation in an urbanization score and noise environment. Males breeding in activity centers displayed lower maximal (acute) CORT levels than activity refuge males, and acute CORT also tended to negatively correlate with urbanization score. Baseline CORT did not differ between habitat types, and activity center males also showed no evidence of changes in body mass, hematocrit, or antioxidant capacity. Further, activity center males had higher quality feathers (indicative of higher condition at molt) than activity refuge males. We found no indication that the noise environment altered stress physiology or condition in song sparrows. Overall, results suggest that song sparrows are an urban adapter species, which are not detrimentally affected by unique selective pressures encountered in the urban environment.