Journal of Ornithology

, 150:621 | Cite as

Comparison of trace element and stable isotope approaches to the study of migratory connectivity: an example using two hirundine species breeding in Europe and wintering in Africa

  • T. SzépEmail author
  • K. A. Hobson
  • J. Vallner
  • S. E. Piper
  • B. Kovács
  • D. Z. Szabó
  • A. P. Møller
Original Article


Analyses of stable isotopes and trace elements in feathers may provide important information about location and habitat use during molt, thereby enabling the investigation of migratory connectivity and its ecological consequences in bird species that breed and winter in different areas. We have compared the conclusions arrived at based on the use of these two methods on the same samples of feathers from two migratory birds, the Sand Martin Riparia riparia and the Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica. We investigated the effects of location, age and sex on stable isotope (δ13C, δ15N, δD) and trace element profiles (As, Cd, Mg, Mn, Mo, Se, Sr, Co, Fe, Zn, Li, P, Ti, V, Ag, Cr, Ba, Hg, Pb, S, Ni and Cu). The feathers of adults at the breeding grounds were removed, forcing in birds to grow new feathers at the breeding grounds; this enabled a comparison of composition of feathers grown in Europe and Africa by the same individual. Stable isotope and trace element profiles varied geographically, even at micro-geographic scales, and also among age classes. The results of both methods suggest that food composition and/or source differs between adults and nestlings in the breeding area and that food and/or molting location changes with the age of individuals in Africa. In an attempt to determine the usefulness of data obtained from composition of feathers, we performed discriminant function analyses on information obtained on stable isotopes and trace elements in order to assess the correctness of the classification of group membership. When feathers molted in Africa were compared to those molted in Europe, trace element profiles of the 22 elements generally had a much greater resolution than the stable isotope profiles based on three stable isotopes. The proportion of correctly classified samples was also greater for analyses based on trace elements than for those based on stable isotopes.


Bird migration Connectivity Hirundinidae Stable isotopes Trace elements 



We are grateful for valuable help in field work by A. Piper and M. Gemmell. We thank R. Nuttall and H. and Z. Bernitz for working with their teams. We thank Profs. D. Norman (UK) and F. de Lope (Spain) for collecting feathers, E. Molnár, H. N. Uhrin., Zs. Nagy and B. Habarics for assistance in the field and the laboratory and the Nyíregyházi Local Chapter of MME/BirdLife Hungary for providing the infrastructure for the field and laboratory work. The study was supported by the Hungarian and South African intergovernmental project (DAK 13-01), OTKA T42879, K69068 and Scientific Committee of the College of Nyíregyháza.


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • T. Szép
    • 1
    Email author
  • K. A. Hobson
    • 2
  • J. Vallner
    • 1
  • S. E. Piper
    • 3
  • B. Kovács
    • 4
  • D. Z. Szabó
    • 5
  • A. P. Møller
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of Environmental ScienceCollege of NyíregyházaNyíregyházaHungary
  2. 2.Environment CanadaSaskatoonCanada
  3. 3.School of Biological and Conservation SciencesUniversity of KwaZulu-NatalScottsvilleSouth Africa
  4. 4.Department of Food Science and Quality AssuranceDebrecen UniversityDebrecenHungary
  5. 5.Department of Taxonomy and EcologyBabeş-Bolyai UniversityCluj NapocaRomania
  6. 6.Laboratoire de Parasitologie Evolutive, CNRS UMR 7103Université Pierre et Marie CurieParis Cedex 05France

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