Many small birds living at mid-to-high latitudes in the North Temperate Zone display seasonal increases in general metabolism and plumage insulation. We examined whether superb fairy-wrens at low altitude in temperate Australia, where winter is milder and the winter–spring transition less pronounced, exhibited similar adjustments. Their oxygen-consumption rate at ambient temperatures in and below their thermoneutral range was measured overnight in winter, spring and summer. Contour plumage mass was also compared in individuals caught in all seasons of the year. Resting-phase metabolic rate in the thermoneutral zone did not vary seasonally. The relationship between ambient temperature and whole-body metabolic rate below lower critical temperature differed in summer and winter, but the regression for spring did not differ from those for summer or winter. Plumage mass was greater (4.04% v. 2.64% of body mass) and calculated whole-bird wet thermal conductance lower (1.55 v. 2.24 mL O 2 bird –1 h –1 °C –1 ) in winter than in summer. Enhanced plumage insulation could have improved heat conservation in autumn and winter. No increase in standard metabolism occurred in winter, perhaps because this season is relatively mild at low altitude in temperate Australia. However, superb fairy-wrens at 37°S operated below their predicted lower critical temperature for most of winter and the early breeding season, so they have presumably evolved as yet unidentified mechanisms for coping with the energy bottlenecks encountered then.
Australian Journal of Zoology – CSIRO Publishing
Published: Mar 23, 2006