, Volume 109, Issue 1, pp 132-141

The use of isotope tracers for identifying populations of migratory birds

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 To determine whether stable isotopes can be used for identifying the geographic origins of migratory bird populations, we examined the isotopic composition of hydrogen (deuterium, δD), carbon (δ13C), and strontium (δ87Sr) in tissues of a migratory passerine, the black-throated blue warbler (Dendroica caerulescens), throughout its breeding range in eastern North America. δD and δ13C values in feathers, which are grown in the breeding area, varied systematically along a latitudinal gradient, being highest in samples from the southern end of the species’ breeding range in Georgia and lowest in southern Canada. In addition, δD decreased from east to west across the northern part of the breeding range, from New Brunswick to Michigan. δ87Sr ratios were highest in the Appalachian Mountains, and decreased towards the west. These patterns are consistent with geographical variation in the isotopic composition of the natural environment, i.e., with that of precipitation, plants, and soils for δD, δ13C, and δ87Sr, respectively. Preliminary analyses of the δD and δ13C composition of feathers collected from warblers in their Caribbean winter grounds indicate that these individuals were mostly from northern breeding populations. Furthermore, variances in isotope ratios in samples from local areas in winter tended to be larger than those in summer, suggesting that individuals from different breeding localities may mix in winter habitats. These isotope markers, therefore, have the potential for locating the breeding origins of migratory species on their winter areas, for quantifying the degree of mixing of breeding populations on migratory and wintering sites, and for documenting other aspects of the population structure migratory animals – information needed for studies of year-round ecology of these species as well as for their conservation. Combining information from several stable isotopes will help to increase the resolution for determining the geographic origins of individuals in such highly vagile populations.

Received: 24 April 1995 / Accepted: 2 June 1996