The Science of Nature

, 104:99 | Cite as

Habitat quality affects stress responses and survival in a bird wintering under extremely low ambient temperatures

  • Dina Cīrule
  • Tatjana Krama
  • Ronalds Krams
  • Didzis Elferts
  • Ants Kaasik
  • Markus J. Rantala
  • Pranas Mierauskas
  • Severi Luoto
  • Indrikis A. Krams
Original Paper


Animals normally respond to stressful environmental stimuli by releasing glucocorticoid hormones. We investigated whether baseline corticosterone (CORT), handling-induced corticosterone concentration(s), and body condition indices of members of willow tit (Poecile montanus) groups differed while wintering in old growth forests and managed young forests in mild weather conditions and during cold spells. Willow tits spend the winter season in non-kin groups in which dominant individuals typically claim their priority to access resources, while subordinate individuals may experience greater levels of stress and higher mortality, especially during cold spells. We captured birds to measure baseline CORT and levels of handling-induced CORT secretion after 20 min of capture. Willow tits in the young forests had higher baseline CORT and a smaller increase in CORT in response to capture than individuals in the old forests. Baseline CORT was higher in females and juvenile birds compared to adult males, whereas handling-induced CORT secretion did not differ between birds of different ages. During cold spells, baseline CORT of willow tits increased and handling-induced CORT secretion decreased, especially in birds in young forests. Willow tits’ survival was higher in the old forests, with dominant individuals surviving better than subordinates. Our results show that changes in CORT secretion reflect responses to habitat quality and climate harshness, indicating young managed coniferous forests as a suboptimal habitat for the willow tit.


Stress Corticosterone Habitat quality Dominance hierarchy Willow tits Winter survival 



We thank Todd M. Freeberg for valuable comments which greatly improved the manuscript.


The study was supported by two grants of the Latvian Council of Science (No. 07.2100 and 290/2012) and a grant of the Estonian Research Council (No. PUT1223) to I.A.K.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics statement

All animal manipulations were carried out in accordance with the legal and ethical standards of the Republic of Latvia. The project had the permission of the Nature Conservation Agency of the Republic of Latvia (No. 16/2012).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Animal Health and Environment BIORInstitute of Food SafetyRīgaLatvia
  2. 2.Department of Plant Protection, Institute of Agricultural and Environmental SciencesEstonian University of Life ScienceTartuEstonia
  3. 3.Department of BiotechnologyDaugavpils UniversityDaugavpilsLatvia
  4. 4.Department of Botany and Ecology, Faculty of BiologyUniversity of LatviaRīgaLatvia
  5. 5.Latvian State Forest Research Institute “Silava”SalaspilsLatvia
  6. 6.Institute of Ecology and Earth SciencesUniversity of TartuTartuEstonia
  7. 7.Department of Biology, Turku Brain and Mind CentreUniversity of TurkuTurkuFinland
  8. 8.Department of Environment PolicyMykolas Romeris UniversityVilniusLithuania
  9. 9.English, Drama and Writing Studies, and School of PsychologyUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand
  10. 10.Department of Zoology and Animal Ecology, Faculty of BiologyUniversity of LatviaRīgaLatvia

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