Bigger not always better for birds

New research has found that the larger a bird’s bill, the longer they spend trying to snuggle it in against the cold.

A Deakin University study examining the “backrest” behaviour of shorebirds has discovered that birds with bigger bills exhibit the behaviour more, and over longer periods of time.

Ecologist Dr Matthew Symonds, Deputy Director of Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology (CIE) and team leader on the research, said people had long assumed the “backrest” behaviour – where birds turn their heads to the back and tuck their beaks underneath their feathers when resting – was for protection against the cold.

However, before this research, no one had rigorously studied the behaviour.

“We found the birds were indeed using backrest to try to keep warm, because they do it more when it gets colder,” Dr Symonds said.

“But the surprising thing we discovered was that the birds with bigger bills used this behaviour more, and over longer periods of time.

“In fact, they continued to use the behaviour more even as the weather warmed.”

The study looked at nine species of shorebirds ranging from the largest comparative beak size, 9.2cm, found on the red-necked avocet, to the smallest, 3.4cm, found on the masked lapwing.

The field research was carried out by Deakin honours student Julia Ryeland, who observed the birds roosting over a six-month period along the coastal flats around Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, near Melbourne in southern Victoria.

Ms Ryeland said hundreds of hours of footage of shorebirds was collected under temperatures from around 10 to more than 40 degrees.

[testimonial_text]When we looked at the footage, we found the red-necked avocet, which has the longest relative bill length, had the highest use of the backrest posture, while the masked lapwing, with the smallest relative bill length, used it the least [/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Ms Julia Ryeland” details=”Deakin Honours student”]

Dr Symonds said the findings had a significant implication for how bigger-billed birds spent their time.

“This means that while these birds have developed larger beaks to help them forage for food, it actually has a negative side effect in that they need to spend more time keeping this equipment protected from the cold,” he said.

“This then lessens their time available for things like food gathering and keeping an eye out for predators.

“It’s an unexpected cost of having a larger bill.”

Dr Symonds said bills were a significant area of heat loss for birds and his previous research had shown that birds in colder climates had evolved to have smaller beaks to mitigate this effect.

“For a really large bird like the toucan, the bill accounts for about 40 percent of body surface area and 60 percent of the heat loss at rest,” he said.

“So this likely explains why birds are so keen to keep their bills tucked in.”

The team’s paper, “Bill size mediates behavioural thermoregulation in birds”, has been published online in Functional Ecology.

This article was published by Deakin Research on 5 January 2017.

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