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Differential shortstopping behaviour in Whooping Cranes: Habitat or social learning?

January 6, 2023

Many migratory bird species have begun shifting their wintering grounds closer to their breeding grounds, shortening their yearly migration distance through a behavior called shortstopping. While multiple studies have investigated possible drivers, it remains unclear why only some populations adopt this behavior.

We studied the differential occurrence of shortstopping in two populations of Whooping Cranes (Grus americana): a remnant population where juveniles migrate with their parents, and a reintroduced population consisting largely of captive-reared birds trained to migrate by unrelated conspecifics or by humans. Shortstopping is widespread in the reintroduced population, while the remnant population has not shown any appreciable northward movement of its overwintering sites. We examined potential drivers for this lack of shortstopping, including a lack of suitable habitat north of their current wintering area or social differences between populations.

Using characteristics of winter locations used by the reintroduced population, we found that 31.4% of the remnant migration corridor was predicted to be suitable for wintering, suggesting that insufficient habitat suitability is not limiting shortstopping behaviour. However, we found evidence for behavioural differences that might explain the absence of shortstopping in the remnant population: while all juveniles of the remnant population associate with their parents during overwintering, juveniles from the reintroduced population did not associate with older conspecifics in 12 out of 25 observed wintering events, suggesting that the social transmission of winter migration behaviours might be less effective in the reintroduced population. Although social learning is generally believed to increase flexibility in migratory strategies, a strong vertical transmission of behaviour might enforce adherence to established traditions and reduce the uptake of novel behaviours such as shortstopping. We suggest that, besides habitat availability, social factors may also play a role in explaining the absence of shortstopping behaviour in some migratory bird populations.

Publication Year 2023
Title Differential shortstopping behaviour in Whooping Cranes: Habitat or social learning?
DOI 10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02365
Authors Philipp Mendgen, Sarah J. Converse, Aaron T. Pearse, Claire S. Teitelbaum, Thomas Mueller
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Ecology and Conservation
Index ID 70255220
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle