Start of nocturnal migratory restlessness in captive birds predicts nocturnal departure time in free-flying birds


In nocturnal songbird migrants, total speed of migration is determined by the time birds stay at stopovers, where they replenish fuel reserves used during previous flights, and by their travel speed. In contrast to factors influencing stopover duration, little is known about individual variation in travel speed which is a combination of birds’ ground speed and the time spent flying. The latter is directly affected by nocturnal departure time. Ground speed can be easily tracked, e.g., by radar, but not much is known about when migrants set off within the night, let alone factors influencing its variation. Studying how factors cause variation in nocturnal departure time requires an experimental setup that allows transferring results from indoor experiments, where environmental conditions can be controlled for or manipulated, to the behavior of free-flying birds. Here, we show that the start of nocturnal migratory restlessness „Zugunruhe” of caged songbirds was significantly positively related to their radio-tracked nocturnal departure time the following night. We can now start identifying factors causing individual variation in the start of nocturnal migratory restlessness and transfer these results to departure times within the night. This will improve our understanding of why travel speed, and with that total speed of migration, varies individually and how it is affected by environmental changes.

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The authors thank Konstantin Lebus for the help with the radio-tracking. Jochen Dierschke and Klaus Müller supported in various ways on Helgoland. Franz Bairlein and an anonymous referee provided useful comments. HS and the study are financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant number SCHM 2647).

Ethical standards

Northern wheatears were caught, ringed, and radio-tagged under license of the Ministry for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Areas, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

Author contributions

HS designed the research; HS, SK, AF, and RK performed the research; HS and SK analyzed the data; HS, SK, AF, RK, and CE wrote the paper.

Conflicts of interest

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

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Correspondence to Heiko Schmaljohann.

Additional information

Communicated by W. Wiltschko

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Schmaljohann, H., Kämpfer, S., Fritzsch, A. et al. Start of nocturnal migratory restlessness in captive birds predicts nocturnal departure time in free-flying birds. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 69, 909–914 (2015).

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  • Migratory restlessness
  • Nocturnal departure time
  • Radio-tracking
  • Songbird
  • Speed of migration
  • Zugunruhe