Digestive tract morphology and function of captive garden warblers (Sylvia borin) were measured during four stages of their endogenous circannual rhythm: before, during and after their autumn fattening prior to migration to wintering grounds in Africa, and after a partially simulated migratory flight. Food intake increased by 33% during fattening, utilization efficiency of dry matter tended to increase, and that of energy increased significantly (P0.01). This was because digestive tract capacity (measured as dry tissue mass) increased, so that mean retention time of food remained constant before, during and after fattening (80–84 min). After a 48-h period of starvation of fattened birds to partially simulate a migratory flight, food intake was lower on the first day of refeeding than on the next 4 days, and utilization efficiency was higher on that day, at least partly because of a longer mean retention time (111 min versus 78 min on the third day). Digestive tract dry tissue mass fell by 50% during starvation, and that of the small intestine by 63%. It is concluded that the garden warbler adapts to long-distance migration without feeding by rapidly reducing the size of its digestive tract, an expensive tissue to maintain, during migration in order to save weight and energy, and possibly also to supply part of the fuel and protein required for the flight. The cost of this strategy appears to be the time taken to rebuild the gut at stopover sites with food, but the low probability of finding such a site in the Sahara Desert means that this strategy is probably optimal for garden warblers.