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Occurrence of quiescence in free-ranging migratory songbirds


Quiescence is a period of inactivity that occurs before the onset of migratory activity in nocturnally migrating birds. This behavior has been observed in captive birds in migratory disposition, but its occurrence in free-ranging migratory birds has been documented only anecdotally, and causal factors and function(s), if any, are unknown. In this study, we documented and characterized quiescence in three migratory songbird species (red-eyed vireo [Vireo olivaceus], Swainson’s thrush [Catharus ustulatus], and wood thrush [Hylocichla mustelina]) by measuring movement and proportion of time spent inactive prior to departure from a stopover site during fall migration. Individuals of each species displayed a period of inactivity prior to departure which varied from less than 30 min to over 90 min with red-eyed vireos engaged in the longest, most pronounced quiescence. We also examined how quiescence was related to intrinsic and extrinsic factors known to influence the departure of migrating birds, and found some evidence for an effect of age and departure time but no effect of a migrant’s energetic condition, departure direction, atmospheric conditions around departure, or day of year on quiescence. Our novel application of an automated radiotelemetry system yielded a large amount of data to characterize quiescence in free-ranging migratory birds, and we provide guidance for future studies to tease apart the various causal factors and function(s) of this migratory behavior.

Significance statement

Quiescence is a poorly understood period of inactivity observed among captive and free-ranging migratory songbirds prior to the onset of nocturnal activity. Our novel use of automated radiotelemetry revealed quiescence among three intercontinental migratory songbirds. It also enabled us to ask how quiescence might be related to intrinsic and extrinsic factors known to influence the departure of migrating birds, and provided an opportunity to explore possible function(s), if any, of this intriguing behavior.

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We thank our numerous field technicians at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Fort Morgan Peninsula Banding Station for their work and dedication as well as the USM radio tower crews and members of the USM Migratory Bird Research Group. We appreciate the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge for providing permission to conduct work on their property. We also thank Sarah Davidson and Rolf Weinzierl from, who assisted us in accessing atmospheric data. We thank Eben Paxton and two anonymous reviewers, who provided comments that substantially improved the quality of our paper. James Novak, Eric Bollinger, and Sean Peterson provided valuable feedback on the research and comments on earlier drafts. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (IOS Award nos. 1146832, 1147096, and 1147022), National Geographic Society Committee on Research and Exploration (Award no. 8971-11), Eastern Illinois University (Research and Creative Activity Awards to JLD and LNS), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and University of Southern Mississippi. TJZ was supported by a National Science Foundation GK-12 Program Award (no. 0947944). Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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Correspondence to Jill L. Deppe.

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Ethical approval

All research activities involving animals were approved by the University of Southern Mississippi Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (protocol no. 11092210), US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory (permit no. 21221), and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by W. Wiltschko

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Schofield, L.N., Deppe, J.L., Diehl, R.H. et al. Occurrence of quiescence in free-ranging migratory songbirds. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 36 (2018).

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  • Quiescence
  • Migration
  • Automated radiotelemetry
  • Catharus ustulatus
  • Hylocichla mustelina
  • Vireo olivaceus