Corticosterone in feathers is a long-term, integrated measure of avian stress physiology


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Stress has pervasive consequences for the well-being of animals. Currently, understanding how individuals cope with stressors is typically accomplished via short-term quantification of blood glucocorticoids released after activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis.
  • 2We investigated whether the amount of corticosterone (CORT) deposited in growing feathers provides a long-term, integrated measure of HPA activity in birds using captive red-legged partridges Alectoris rufa as a model species.
  • 3We examined CORT levels in primary feathers induced to grow at the same time as stress series were performed with a capture and restraint protocol. Plasma CORT titres after stress-induced stimulation, but not baseline values, correlated with feather CORT. Feather levels showed the same pattern as plasma of decline across the breeding season, but more severely.
  • 4For females, CORT in naturally moulted flank feathers was highly and positively correlated with the number of eggs laid in the previous few months, but not clutch size of the following year. For males, the amount of black on a feather, known to be a social signal, was positively correlated with its CORT level.
  • 5The analysis of feather CORT is a novel methodology that allows for meaningful interpretations of how individuals respond to environmental perturbations and adjust to life-history stages.
  • 6The analysis of feather hormones has the unique advantages of allowing for experimentation and sampling at any time of the year with minimal investigator-induced impacts and artefacts, and shows the HPA activity of an individual with a flexible time frame from days to months depending on the length of time taken to grow the feather. As this technique can be applied to living or dead birds, or feathers picked up after moult, it provides the ultimate non-invasive physiological measure of considerable benefit in terms of animal welfare and sampling effort.