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The effects of delaying the start of moult on the duration of moult, primary feather growth rates and feather mass in Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris

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In many species of birds there is a close relationship between the end of breeding and the start of moult. Late-breeding birds therefore often start to moult late, but then moult more rapidly. This is an adaptive mechanism mediated by decreasing day lengths that allows late-breeding birds to complete moult in time. This study asked how these birds complete moult of the primary feathers more rapidly, and the consequences of this on the mass of primary feathers. Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris were induced to moult rapidly in one of two ways. In the first experiment, one group was exposed to artificially decreasing photoperiods from the start of moult, whereas the control group remained on a constant long photoperiod. The second experiment was a more realistic simulation. Two groups were allowed to moult in an outdoor aviary. One group started to moult at the normal time. In the other, the start of moult was delayed by 3 weeks with an implant of testosterone. The duration of moult was significantly reduced in both the group experiencing artificially decreasing photoperiods and the group in which the start of moult was delayed. The faster moult rate was achieved by moulting more feathers concurrently. The rate of increase in length of each of the primary feathers, and their final length, did not differ between groups. The rate at which total new primary feather mass was accumulated was greater in more rapidly moulting birds, but this was insufficient to compensate for the greater numbers of feathers being grown concurrently. Consequently, the rate of increase in mass of individual feathers, and the final feather mass, were less in the rapidly moulting birds. A 3-week delay in the start of moult is not an unrealistic scenario. That this caused a measurable decrease in feather mass suggests that late-breeding birds are indeed likely to suffer a real decrease in the quality of plumage grown during the subsequent moult.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-07-01

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