U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


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Werner SJ, Hobson KA, Van Wilgenburg SL, Fischer JW (2016) Multi-Isotopic (δ2H, δ13C, δ15N) Tracing of Molt Origin for Red-Winged Blackbirds Associated with Agro-Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0165996. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0165996


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We analyzed stable-hydrogen (δ2H), carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotope ratios in feathers to better understand the molt origin and food habits of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) near sunflower production in the Upper Midwest and rice production in the Mid-South of the United States. Outer primary feathers were used from 661 after-second-year (ASY) male blackbirds collected in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota (spring collection), and Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas (winter collection). The best-fit model indicated that the combination of feather δ2H, δ13C and δ15N best predicted the state of sample collections and thus supported the use of this approach for tracing molt origins in Red-winged Blackbirds. When considering only birds collected in spring, 56% of birds were classified to their collection state on the basis of δ2H and δ13C alone. We then developed feather isoscapes for δ13C based upon these data and for δ2H based upon continental patterns of δ2H in precipitation. We used 81 birds collected at the ten independent sites for model validation. The spatially-explicit assignment of these 81 birds to the δ2H isoscape resulted in relatively high rates (~77%) of accurate assignment to collection states. We also modeled the spatial extent of C3 (e.g. rice, sunflower) and C4 (corn, millet, sorghum) agricultural crops grown throughout the Upper Midwest and Mid- South United States to predict the relative use of C3- versus C4-based foodwebs among sampled blackbirds. Estimates of C3 inputs to diet ranged from 50% in Arkansas to 27% in Minnesota. As a novel contribution to blackbird conservation and management, we demonstrate how such feather isoscapes can be used to predict the molt origin and interstate movements of migratory blackbirds for subsequent investigations of breeding biology (e.g. sex-specific philopatry), agricultural depredation, feeding ecology, physiology of migration and sensitivity to environmental change.

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