Variation in feather corticosterone levels in Alpine swift nestlings provides support for the hypo-responsive hypothesis

Susanne Jenni-Eiermann* (Corresponding Author), Juanita Olano Marin, Pierre Bize

*Corresponding author for this work

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In birds, feather corticosterone values (CORTf) are increasingly used as a retrospective and integrative proxy of an individual’s physiological state during the period of feather growth. Relatively high CORTf values are usually interpreted as an indicator of exposure to energy demanding or stressful conditions during feather growth. However, in nestlings this interpretation might not always hold true. The reasons are that, firstly nestlings (especially altricial ones) still develop their hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) reactivity during the growth of their feathers. Hence, at a young age, nestlings might be unable to mount a substantial adrenocortical stress response. Secondly, some species are able to down33 regulate their metabolism during food scarcity and therewith probably also their CORT release. Consequently, CORTf values may not unambiguously reflect whether nestlings have suffered from energy-demanding or stress situations. Relatively high CORTf values might indicate either energy-demanding or stressful conditions (‘stress responsive hypothesis’), or conversely – favourable conditions during the period of feather growth (‘hypo-responsive
hypothesis’). In the altricial Alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba), we tested which factors help to distinguish between the two hypotheses by considering factors which affect CORT release (brood size, weather) and factors which are affected by high CORT levels (nestling size and condition). We measured CORTf in 205 nestlings over 7 years and collected data on brood size, body size, body condition and prevailing weather. Nestling CORTf values were positively correlated with body condition and negatively with adverse weather, supporting the hypo-responsive hypothesis. Results from the Alpine swift study, supplemented with a survey of the literature, show that relatively easily collected parameters on brood size, nestling size and condition, and environmental factors can help to distinguish between the two hypotheses. A meaningful interpretation of nestling CORTf should only be made in the context of species-specific traits.
Original languageEnglish
Article number113946
Number of pages8
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
Early online date27 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

The authors would like to thank the numerous students who helped collecting data in the field and the city council of Solothurn for access the Bieltor tower. SJE would like to thank Benedetta Catitti for producing the figures and Lukas Jenni for valuable comments on the manuscript. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


  • hypo-responsive hypothesis
  • environmental condition
  • feather corticosterone
  • HPA axis maturation
  • altricial nestling
  • stress responsive hypothesis


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