Transcriptome of the migratory Common quail

Our publication on the de novo brain transcriptome of the migratory Common quail is now out in its final form in Data in Brief:

In this article, we developed a high quality pipeline for compiling transcriptomes of complex non-genomic species. Our data not only can provide a robust reference for gene expression studies in migratory birds but will also be useful for studies in related Galliforms, including the Japanese quail, a recognised model in behavioural neuroendocrinology and physiology research.

quaglia_in_canto_GianniPola@Photo credit: Gianni Pola

Manakins adapt their courtship display to environmental disruptions

In the rainforests of Panama we find these attractive birds called golden-collared manakins. From the middle of January until June males spend a lot of time dancing in their own arena built between young trees, so called saplings, on the forest floor to attract females. Since their courtship dance seems like a well-practiced choreography, with incredibly fast jumps and flips and loud “snap”- sounds that they produce with their wings, we wanted to see what will happen if we disturb their dancing routine. Maybe they would leave their well-prepared arenas and display somewhere else? Or would they modify their choreography?

So we went out in the tropical forests and started filming (check out the video!) and observed the males in their daily routines to attract females. Once we had recorded their choreography, we placed a big piece of natural bark on the mating sapling within the males’ arenas, the sapling where all the mating occurs. This resembled a natural event, i.e. a fallen branch, that could happen every day in the rainforest. We filmed and observed the males for 4 consecutive days.  At first, the males seemed very annoyed and spent a lot of time looking at the bark that was lying in their arena as they were unable to display their well-established choreography. Then they started to display by using the remaining accessible saplings of their arena and some males even managed to attract females again with their new display sequences. On the 5th day, we took the bark away again and the males peaked their courtship activity, many went back to their well-studied and long-used courtship routine but some males included the new jumping sequence that they had established during our test period.

Our results suggest that elaborate courtship displays of manakins have motor sequence learning as an underlying mechanism. Although males are flexible in building a choreography, they need time to develop new routines. This is a first insight into the role of learning in the development of elaborate courtship displays. Stay tuned for more results!

Click here to access the online version of the paper (free download!)

Judith Janisch, MSc

Elisa Perinot, MSc

Leonida Fusani, PhD

Migratory Shrikes prey on other migrating songbirds during trans-Saharan crossing

Shrikes (family Laniidae) are small songbirds that are notorious for the gruesome habit of attacking, impaling and consuming vertebrates such as frogs, lizards, snakes, rodents and sometimes other songbirds. However the Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator pictured above), being among the smallest and most migratory species of the family, is not known for this behavior on its breeding or wintering grounds, and is seemingly content with an amicable diet of arthropods. However, at a spring stopover site in the Sahara desert, we began to notice that it too aggressively chases and sometimes kills songbirds that are also in the midst of their migration. We found evidence that only the weakest among migrating songbirds (gauged by body condition) fall victims to this seemingly opportunistic diet switch by Woodchat Shrikes. We suggest that the debilitating desert crossing renders some individuals easier to capture, perhaps explaining why it is not commonly observed during sedentary periods. Stopover is really a dynamic time for songbirds, and you can read a little more in our publication found here.   


A Common Redstart impaled by a Woodchat Shrike during migration. From its ring we know its body condition prior to predation- this one was in very poor condition, probably contributing to its capture by the shrike.

MSc project in behavioural biology and migratory bird physiology

We are looking for a motivated Master/Diploma student who would like to gain experience and knowledge on migratory physiology and behavioural biology. The student will be based in the Fusani’s lab a highly vibrant and constantly expanding research environment.

The student’s work will be part of a FWF-funded project on the role of environmental stress in the expression of migratory behaviour using the Common quail as our study species. The work will be performed from July 2020 until November 2020 at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology. The working language is English. Previous experience with birds is very welcome but not necessary.

The student will have the opportunity to be involved in all the experimental phases, will be thought how to perform animal experiments in laboratory conditions, to take morphological and physiological measurements, as well as laboratory sample processing procedures. The student will also have the opportunity to learn the use of various methods to monitor time-budget behaviours (e.g. accelerometers). The student will be part of  our large research group with the opportunity to expand knowledge on different topics from animal behaviour and cognitive sciences, animal physiology, bird migration, molecular biology and genomics.

Get in touch for further information on the project. Dr Valeria Marasco, email: valeria.marasco@vetmeduni.ac.at (Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology).

Corticosterone in feathers is affected by tropical forest management

In a collaborative project with several labs, we found that glucocorticoid hormones are potential mediators of carry‐over effects on population abundance linked to forest management. The study was conducted on a series of species in the tropical forests of Borneo, and involved measurement of corticosterone in feathers which was conducted in our endocrinology laboratory. The article was published in Functional Ecology.

Simone Messina, the first author of the paper, worked in our endocrinology laboratory to measure corticosterone in the feathers collected in Borneo.

Stopover strategies of 12 passerines on Ponza

Small coastal islands are known to birdwatchers because they attract large numbers of migrants at the appropriate time of the year. Many of these islands are especially fruitful during bad weather conditions, because they act as safe havens for birds that have to interrupt their flight. In Italy, a handful of islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea are also attracting thousands of migrants during spring migration, but their peculiarity is that they do so even when there is no weather emergency. We analyzed ringing data from our station on Ponza to investigate what might be the reason to stop there for so many birds. On Ponza, we can reach tips of 1500-2000 individual birds caught in one single day! By looking at the body mass data at first capture and at recapture data we hoped to determine whether birds stopping on Ponza might do so to refuel their depleted energies after the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. We analyzed 12 different species and we consistently found very low recapture rates (below 2% of the birds were ever recaptured), indicating that most birds stay on Ponza just for a very short time. Of the birds that were recaptured, we noticed that these were mostly carrying less fat than the average for their species. This means that a stop on Ponza was forced when birds had too low energy stores for continuing their flight. However, only in two species (Subalpine Warblers and Common Chiffchaffs) birds were actually able to increase their fat stores during the stay on Ponza. In all other species, birds staying on Ponza did not manage to add body mass. In conclusion, it appears that generally stopping on these islands for refuelling is not convenient, so the question remains open: why do so many birds stop on these islands at all, considering that the mainland is just an extra hour or two away? We believe that birds need a short stop, possibly just for a nap, after the long sea crossing, and islands are a safest place for that than the mainland, especially when they lack predators. Read our article here!

Using an immune response to measure stress in migrating birds

Measuring corticosterone levels is the standard method to assess stress levels in birds. However, this hormone is involved in multiple other physiological processes during migration making its interpretation in the context of stress difficult. Therefore, in our study published in the Journal of Ornithology, we investigated whether an immunological tool called leukocyte coping capacity (LCC) provides useful complementary information on the stress response in migratory Garden Warblers caught at their stopover site on Ponza Island.

Our results show that LCC significantly decreased during the acute stress response, which implies high-stress levels and a diminished capacity to recover after a stressful event. This outcome further confirms that the LCC method is a useful tool to extend our understanding of stress and the ability of migrating birds to cope with it.

If you want to learn more about the Leukocyte coping capacity and how it relates to the classical corticosterone stress protocol and the energetic condition of these migratory birds, you can access the paper following this link.

Nikolaus HuberVirginie Canoine, Jessica S. Cornils, Ivan Maggini, Massimiliano Cardinale, Thomas Ruf & Leonida Fusani. Leukocyte coping capacity as a complementary stress metric in migrating birds. J Ornithol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-020-01774-9

Our study on courtship featured in ‘Der Standard’

The newspaper “Der Standard” has published an article by Susanne Strnadl featuring our ongoing project Comparative Aesthetics funded by the WWTF. You can read the full article (in German) by following this link.

Lean migratory songbirds move more when food is scarce

During spring migration, stopover sites play a determinant role for migratory songbirds’ survival. In a paper published on Scientific Reports, we investigated how food availability, an indicator of stopover site quality, shapes the behaviour of energetic challenged migratory songbirds after crossing the Mediterranean.


Our results suggest that birds with low energy reserves search for refuelling opportunities when food availability is low. In addition to improving our understanding of migratory strategies, our results are relevant for the protection of stopover areas, currently is one of the major concerns for the conservation of migratory birds.

If you want to learn more about the influence of food availability on stopover behaviour, you can access the paper following this link.

Energy reserves but not oxidative balance influence sleep

Several functions have been hypothesized for sleep, such as energy conservation and clearance of free radicals. In our study published in Integrative Organismal Biology, we investigated the relationship between sleep behavior, food intake and two markers of physiological condition – the amount of energy reserves and oxidative status – in two migratory songbird species, the Garden Warbler and the Whitethroat.

Although sleep posture preference resulted to be a common energy saving strategy, our results suggests that different species might use different strategies to manage their energy during stopover. In addition, it raises the possibility that migrants have evolved physiological adaptations to deal with oxidative damage produced during migration.

If you want to learn more about this study, you can access the paper by following this link.