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Improving provenance studies in migratory birds when using feather hydrogen stable isotopes


J. G. B. van Dijk, Dept of Animal Ecology, Netherlands Inst. of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), PO Box 50, NL-6700 AB Wageningen, the Netherlands. E-mail:


Hydrogen stable isotopes (δ2H) in feathers are used to determine the origin and migration strategy of birds. To identify the geographic location of the site of feather synthesis, calibration curves for the relation between feather δ2H and amount-weighted growing-season δ2H in precipitation are used to generate feather δ2H isoscapes. Factors like species, age and year might generate isotopic variation in calibration curves, but the extent to which accounting for variation may improve calibration curves and hence provenance determination of birds, is unknown. We compared three European calibration curves: 1) an existing multi-species curve, uncorrected for age and year variation, and two species-specific calibration curves, based on mallard Anas platyrhynchos feathers, of 2) varying age and year, and 3) juvenile natal origin, corrected for year variation. Calibration curves using ordinary least square linear regression (OLS) as opposed to standard major axis regression showed least bias in estimation. As expected, we found that a single species (mallard) OLS calibration curve corrected for age and year yielded the highest coefficient of determination, but was still surprisingly similar to the other two calibration curves. Nevertheless, when using feathers of known-origin to assess provenance accuracy, the calibration curve that accounted for species, age and year variation yielded the best prediction in as many as 59% of the cases. Our study is the first to demonstrate implications of isotopic variation on assessing the origin of individual birds, but also highlights the relatively small gain in precision that is achieved by generating species, age and year specific calibration curves rather than resorting to more general alternatives.