Physiology and behavior under food limitation support an escape, not preparative, response in the nomadic pine siskin (Spinus pinus)

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Migration allows animals to use resources that are variable in time and/or space, with different migratory strategies depending on the predictability of resource variation. When food varies seasonally, obligate migrants anticipate and prepare for migration. In contrast, facultative migrants, whose movements are unpredictable in timing and destination, may prepare for either migration or escape when resources are depleted. We propose and test two alternative hypotheses regarding the behavioral and physiological responses of facultative migrants to declining food availability. (1) The prepare hypothesis predicts that facultative migrants prepare for departure by increasing fuel stores in response to declining food availability, and elevations of baseline corticosterone (CORT) facilitate increased activity. (2) The escape hypothesis predicts that facultative migrants do not prepare for departure, body condition declines as food availability declines, and stress-induced levels of CORT induce escape behavior when both energetic condition and food resources are low. We conducted a 16-day experiment, measuring body composition (using quantitative magnetic resonance), activity (using force perches) and baseline CORT in pine siskins (Spinus pinus) given ad libitum food or a slow decline, fast decline or randomly changing amount of food. Our results support the escape hypothesis: body condition declined as food declined, decreases in body and fat mass were associated with increases in baseline CORT, and activity increased only when food availability was low. This work suggests that facultative migration in autumn allows birds to escape low-resource areas and that the underlying physiological mechanisms differ from those driving both seasonal, obligate migrations and spring nomadic movements.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberjeb238774
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • Body composition
  • Corticosterone
  • Irruption
  • Locomotor activity
  • Migration
  • Pine siskin


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