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Flexible Seasonal Timing and Migratory Behavior: Results from Stonechat Breeding Programs



Abstract: Rigid schedules of long-distance migrants could be among candidate traits for adaptive migratory syndromes. This prediction was tested on stonechats, passerines that differ widely in migratory behavior and seasonal schedules. Stonechats in Europe are short-distance migrants and multiclutched, whereas African residents and Siberian long-distance migrants usually raise single broods. In captivity, all subspecies displayed endogenous cycles of reproductive development and molt. The subspecies differed in time afforded to life cycle stages. Under conducive aviary conditions, African stonechats were multibrooded, whereas Siberian stonechats did not add clutches. This difference in flexibility was exclusively related to the length of breeding windows. Stonechats also differed in premigratory preparations. Postjuvenile molt started early in Siberian stonechats, but in European and African stonechats, depended strongly on hatching date. In contrast, all subspecies shortened molt duration at the same rate when hatched from late broods. Plasticity of Zugunruhe timing was identical in Siberian and European subspecies and nearly compensated for hatching late. The stonechat data suggest a refined understanding of temporal plasticity in long-distance migrants. Overall, plasticity was not reduced, but was differently organized. Apparently rigid migrant schedules were related to short breeding cycles and inflexible molt onset. Short windows for breeding and juvenile development could provide safety measures for timely departure. Once molt was initiated, temporal plasticity of long-distance migrants matched that of less migratory conspecifics. In addition to adjusting endogenous programs, stonechats differed in implementing them in the field. Modifying the conditions under which programs are expressed may be an efficient way to enhance seasonal plasticity.