Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 68, Issue 3, pp 391–402 | Cite as

The nature of the migration route shapes physiological traits and aerodynamic properties in a migratory songbird

  • Anna-Marie Corman
  • Franz Bairlein
  • Heiko SchmaljohannEmail author
Original Paper


Migration distance is supposed to represent an important selection pressure shaping physiological and morphological properties. Previous work has focussed on this effect, while the importance of ecological barriers in this context has been rarely considered. We studied two subspecies of a migratory songbird, the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe and O. o. leucorhoa L.), on an island in the North Sea. The former subspecies reaches their Scandinavian breeding areas after a short sea crossing, whereas leucorhoa northern wheatears cross the North Atlantic towards Iceland, Greenland or Canada. Physiological traits (fuel deposition rate) and wings’ aerodynamic properties (wing pointedness independent of body size), both affecting migration speed, were hypothesized to be more pronounced in leucorhoa than in oenanthe northern wheatears. Within subspecies, the physiological and aerodynamic properties were hypothesized to explain arrival date at the stopover site with “fast migrants” arriving early. Physiological and aerodynamic properties in leucorhoa northern wheatears lead to a faster and less costly migration, favouring a sea crossing, but in trade-off lower flight manoeuvrability than in oenanthe birds. Wings’ aerodynamic properties affected the seasonal occurrence of leucorhoa females, whereas the physiological traits significantly influenced arrival date in oenanthe individuals. The less risky migration route in oenanthe birds with few short sea crossings may have favoured higher flight manoeuvrability for foraging (less pointed wings), in trade-off an energetically more costly flight. Hence, not the migration distance itself, but the presence/absence of a sea barrier presents an important selection pressure in migratory land birds favouring low flight costs.


Aerodynamic properties Differential timing Migration speed Northern wheatear Physiological traits Selection 



Continuous field work over the years was only possible because of the enormous support from P.J.J. Becker, T. Bleifuß, M. Berg, J. Delingat, J. Dierschke, V. Dierschke, S. Engel, A. Fischer, C. Grande, B. Holtmann, S. Jaquier, K.F. Jachmann, H. Karaardic, B. Mendel, K. Müller, W. Plötner, I. Prugger, M. Rebke, J. Röw, S. Stadtmann, C. Struckmeyer and A. Walter. Technical support for the experiment was obtained from O. Hüppop, K. Müller and F. Schramm. HS is financed by the German Research Foundation (SCHM 2647/1-1). The authors have no conflict of interest to declare. We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript.

Ethical Standards

Wheatears were caught, ringed and kept in captivity under licence of the Ministry for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Areas, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. All animals were handled in strict accordance with good animal practice and all efforts were made to minimize suffering.

Supplementary material

265_2013_1653_MOESM1_ESM.docx (104 kb)
Appendix S1 Estimation of wing area (DOCX 103 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anna-Marie Corman
    • 1
    • 2
  • Franz Bairlein
    • 1
  • Heiko Schmaljohann
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Institute of Avian Research “Vogelwarte Helgoland”WilhelmshavenGermany
  2. 2.Research and Technology Centre WestcoastBüsumGermany

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