Dependencies in the timing of activities weaken over the annual cycle in a long-distance migratory bird

  • Rien E. van Wijk
  • Michael Schaub
  • Silke Bauer
Original Article


Migrating birds have to incorporate migration into their annual cycle, next to breeding and moult. This presents the challenge to arrive at the right place at the right time at any given moment during the year to maximize fitness. Although many studies have investigated the timing of specific (life-history) activities of migrating birds, it is poorly studied how the timing and duration of these activities depend on each other and, ultimately, how they affect fitness. Therefore, we investigated variability and dependencies in the timing and duration of successive activities throughout the annual cycle and assessed their fitness consequences in hoopoes (Upupa epops), a long-distance migratory bird, using geolocator and breeding phenology data of five consecutive years. We found that the timing and duration of seasonal activities generally depended on the timing and duration of the preceding activity; yet, the strength of these dependencies and the degree of variability varied between activities. The strongest dependencies were found between the end of breeding and departure from the breeding grounds as well as between the arrival in the breeding grounds and the onset of breeding. We also found fitness consequences of timing and duration but only for specific activities: spring migration and particularly the duration of the pre-breeding period influenced the quality of the territory acquired as well as the total number of fledglings. Consequently, we suggest that our study species has the flexibility to adjust the timing and duration of activities but to varying degrees. This is a step forward in understanding the time-constraints that migratory animals face and in identifying their fitness consequences.

Significance statement

To date, few studies have investigated the timing and dependencies of seasonal activities in migrating birds throughout the annual cycle and their fitness consequences. However, understanding temporal constraints and identifying sensitive—fitness-relevant—periods within the annual cycle is crucial to understand the population dynamics of migrating species. We investigated the timing and duration of life-history activities in a long-distance migratory bird and assessed their fitness consequences. Our results clearly show that seasonal activities were generally linked to the previous activities but that this dependency ceased relative to activities further in the past. We also found clear fitness consequences but only for the timing and duration of specific activities. Thus, our study shows that migrants can adjust the timing and duration of activities to a certain degree but also that this flexibility is more constrained for specific activities.


Autumn migration Spring migration Reproductive success Geolocator Upupa epops Non-breeding 



We thank the people that assisted during fieldwork, and Lukas Jenni, Felix Liechti, Amber Beerman, Judy Shamoun-Baranes, Kasper Thorup and three anonymous reviewers for helpful and constructive comments on previous versions. This project was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (31003A_138354 to MS and SB). The Swiss federal office for environment contributed financial support for the development of the geolocators (UTF-Nr. 254, 332, 363, 400).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All capture and handling of hoopoes complied with contemporary laws regulating the treatment of animals in Switzerland and was approved by the appropriate management agencies and ethical committees.

Informed consent

Informed consent is not applicable in this study.

Supplementary material

265_2017_2305_MOESM1_ESM.docx (491 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 490 kb).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rien E. van Wijk
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Michael Schaub
    • 1
    • 4
  • Silke Bauer
    • 1
  1. 1.Swiss Ornithological InstituteSempachSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of ZürichZürichSwitzerland
  3. 3.CopenhagenDenmark
  4. 4.Institute of Ecology and EvolutionUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland

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