Assessment of body condition in live birds; measurements of protein and fat reserves in the mute swan, Cygnus olor



Condition in animals is often measured in relation to various demands, such as reproduction, migration and cold weather. Usually, indices of protein and fat reserves have to be measured on dead animals. Measurements on live animals enable variations in the condition of individuals to be monitored over time, and can be related to their life histories.

In birds, the size of the breast muscle is the most commonly used measure of protein reserves. A technique for measuring breast muscle thickness was developed, using ultrasound, and was tested on mute swans. The measurements were accurate and highly repeatable. Breast muscle thickness was positively related to the lean dry weight of the breast muscle, and is likely to be a good indicator of total protein reserves.

A system of fat scoring by colour was developed to assess the size of the subcutaneous fat layer. Although the method relies on subjective judgements, the results were highly correlated with the percentage of fat in the subcutaneous layer, and with other measures of fat reserves.

Measurements were made on live, non-breeding swans to monitor seasonal variations in reserves. The seasonal pattern of fat reserves was similar to the normal cycle of weight changes; high in winter and low in summer. There was no change in relation to the moult. No distinct seasonal variation in muscle thickness was found.

There is an unusual pattern of change in the relative size of reserves during emaciation in swans. Muscle reserves appear to be depleted to a greater extent than fat reserves. This is possibly due to the effects of lead poisoning, causing protein necrosis and preventing muscle regeneration.