Calcium supplementation of breeding birds: directions for future research


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Calcium is an essential nutrient for avian reproduction. Calcium-rich foods are consumed by breeding birds for production of eggshells and for provisioning chicks that are mineralizing skeletal tissues. A number of studies have documented calcium-limited reproduction, and calcium supplementation has been employed over the last decade to demonstrate degrees, causes and consequences of calcium limitation. However, supplementation studies have produced equivocal findings resulting from an absence of calcium limitation in the study species, a poorly designed supplementation procedure or both. Prior to effective calcium supplementation, many factors need to be considered. Calcium-limited breeding in birds can only be detected by monitoring breeding attempts for more than one year and by ensuring that the measured breeding parameters are sensitive to calcium availability. Natural calcium availability needs to be estimated, and daily calcium budgets for the appropriate reproductive stages determined for the study species. Most crucially, if calcium limitation of breeding is caused by secondary calcium limitation (e.g. through heavy metal toxicity), calcium supplementation will probably be ineffective. Effective calcium supplementation will then be achieved through careful planning – a study over several years using appropriate supplements (i.e. naturally occurring ones used by breeding birds), applied at the appropriate time of year (i.e. prelaying and/or chick-rearing phases) and using a response variable that is highly sensitive to calcium availability. If properly planned and performed, calcium supplementation is a cost-effective and potent tool for the study of bird breeding biology.