Body surface temperature responses to food restriction in wild and captive great tits

Lucy Winder, Stewart White, Andreas Nord, Barbara Helm, Dominic J. McCafferty

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During winter at temperate and high latitudes, the low ambient temperatures, limited food supplies and short foraging periods mean small passerines show behavioural, morphological and physiological adaptations to reduce the risk of facing energy shortages. Peripheral tissues vasoconstrict in low ambient temperatures to reduce heat loss and cold injury. Peripheral vasoconstriction has been observed with food restriction in captivity but has yet to be explored in free-ranging animals. We experimentally food restricted both wild and captive great tits (Parus major) during winter months and measured surface temperatures of the bill and eye region using thermal imaging, to investigate whether birds show rapid local heterothermic responses, which may reduce their thermoregulatory costs when facing a perceived imminent food shortage. Our results of a continuously filmed wild population showed that bill temperature was immediately reduced in response to food restriction compared with when food was available ad libitum, an apparent autonomic response. Such immediacy implies a ‘pre-emptive’ response before the bird experiences any shortfalls in energy reserves. We also demonstrate temporal variation in vasoconstriction of the bill, with bill temperature gradually rising throughout the food restriction after the initial drop. Eye-region temperature in the wild birds remained at similar levels throughout food restriction compared with unrestricted birds, possibly reflecting the need to maintain steady circulation to the central nervous and visual systems. Our findings provide evidence that birds selectively allow the bill to cool when a predictable food supply is suddenly disrupted, probably as a means of minimising depletion of body reserves for a perceived future shortage in energy.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberjeb220046
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Ecology
  • Zoology


  • bird
  • thermoregulation
  • season
  • winter
  • infrared thermography


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