Müller, C., S. Jenni-Eiermann & L. Jenni (2009)

Effects of a short period of elevated circulating corticosterone on postnatal growth in free-living Eurasian kestrels Falco tinnunculus.

Further information

J. Exp. Biol. 212: 1405–1412



Environmental conditions affect growth and development and, through developmental plasticity, create phenotypic variation. In suboptimal conditions current survival is traded-off against development. Corticosterone, the main glucocorticoid in birds, may be involved in the reallocation of energy from growth to maintenance, but its effect on growth has rarely been investigated in altricial birds under natural conditions in the wild. In free-living Eurasian kestrel Falco tinnunculus nestlings, we artificially elevated corticosterone to stress-induced levels over 2-3days in the middle of the nestling stage by implanting biodegradable implants, controlling the treatment with a placebo group. We measured the length of primary feather 8, hand length, tarsus length, body mass and subcutaneous fat stores from day 10 to 25. During corticosterone elevation, primary growth of cort-nestlings was significantly reduced to 71% of placebo-nestlings, hand and tarsus growth were significantly reduced to 14% and 26% of placebonestlings, respectively, and body mass increase stopped, while subcutaneous fat-store growth was not affected. Over the following 5 days, primary growth was still significantly suppressed to 84% of placebo-nestlings, while hand, tarsus and body mass growth were back to normal. During the subsequent 4days, cort-nestlings partly compensated for the lag in body mass by significantly accelerating the body mass increase compared with placebo-nestlings. Before fledging, primary length was 10% shorter, hand and tarsus 5% and 4% shorter and body mass 8.5% lower in cort-nestlings than in placebo-nestlings, while fat score did not differ significantly between the two groups. Thus, we have shown that in free-living, altricial nestlings a few days of elevated plasma corticosterone levels alone, without food restriction, suppressed growth and this could only partly be compensated for afterwards. Feather, bone and body mass growth were reduced to different degrees, indicating that corticosterone had a differential effect on different structures. This demonstrates that corticosterone is probably involved in the control of developmental plasticity.
Keywords: Bone growth, corticosterone implants, feather growth, morphology, stress effects.