Stable isotopes in breath, blood, feces and feathers can indicate intra-individual changes in the diet of migratory songbirds

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We used stable isotopes of C in breath, blood, feces and feathers to identify intra-individual changes in diet and the timescale of diet changes in free-living songbirds at a stopover site. Because accurate interpretation of differences between the δ13C of breath, plasma, and red blood cells (RBCs) relative to diet requires knowing the turnover rate of C within them, we determined the rate of change of C in breath, plasma and RBCs for yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata). Half-lives of C in breath, plasma, and RBCs were 4.4 ± 2.1 h, 24.8 ± 12.3 h and 10.9 ± 3.2 days, respectively, for yellow-rumped warblers. δ13C of breath, plasma, RBCs and feces from wild-caught golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), ruby-crowned kinglets (R. calendula) and gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) indicated that they had maintained an isotopically consistent diet for an extended period of time. However, δ13C of breath and plasma indicated that white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) had recently expanded their diet to include a C4 dietary component. Likewise, δ13C of breath, plasma, RBCs and feces indicated that some wild-caught yellow-rumped warblers had consumed foods with a more enriched protein signature prior to their arrival on Block Island, and since arrival, they had consumed mostly northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Therefore, comparisons of the δ13C of breath, plasma, RBCs, feces and feathers from individual songbirds can indicate changes in diet and provide an estimate of the timescale of the diet change. © Springer-Verlag 2004.

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