Journal of Ethology

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 383–388 | Cite as

Swainson’s thrushes in migratory disposition exhibit reduced immune function

  • Jennifer C. OwenEmail author
  • Frank R. Moore


Evidence indicates that the immune system, which protects an organism from parasitic and pathogenic infections, is frequently suppressed when animals are engaged in activities involving strenuous exercise. We tested the hypothesis that birds reduce immune function during the migratory period in preparation for the anticipated heightened energetic demands of long flights. Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus), captured in fall, were held in an indoor aviary until January, when migratory disposition was induced in half of the birds with an artificially prolonged daylength. Experimental birds became hyperphagic and deposited fat stores, and then displayed nocturnal activity (Zugunruhe) characteristic of the spring migratory period. Cell-mediated immunity was measured by intradermal injection of phytohemagglutinin in the wing patagium of both control and experimental birds. Birds exhibiting migratory restlessness had a reduced cell-mediated immune response compared to control birds. Our results suggest that birds are immunosuppressed during the migratory period. The suppression may be a nonadaptive response due to unrelated physiological processes, or it may be an adaptive response to the physiological demands associated with migration, such as high energetic demands and the negative consequences of a hyperactive immune system.


Swainson’s thrush Catharus ustulatus Migratory behavior Phytohemagglutinin Immune response 



We thank the USM Animal Research Facility staff, Juliann Rich, Rachel Bru, and Sarah Middleton, for their assistance with the care of the birds. Jeff Farrington assisted with the capture of the birds at the Fort Morgan banding station. The research was supported by funding awarded to Owen by Sigma Xi and the American Ornithologist’s Union.


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Copyright information

© Japan Ethological Society and Springer 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Southern MississippiHattiesburgUSA
  2. 2.Department of Fisheries and WildlifeMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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