How important are hemoparasites to migratory songbirds? Evaluating physiological trade-offs during migratory stopover
Long-distance migrations are energetically expensive for many animals, including migratory songbirds. During these demanding journeys, birds likely face limitations in allocating resources to different physiological functions, including lipid reserves needed to fuel the migration and costly immune defense against pathogens. We sampled three species of long distance migratory songbirds during their fall migration through coastal Georgia and quantified their body condition, subcutaneous fat reserves, and infection status with blood parasites (Hemoproteus and Plasmodium). We also quantified cellular immunity, on the basis of total and differential white blood cell counts, and estimated individual stress levels, using the heterophil:lymphocyte (H : L) ratio. Here, we tested whether birds infected with blood parasites had decreased fat measures, poorer body condition, or increased stress levels (as reflected by H: L ratios). Finally, we examined relationships between immune cell profiles and the following variables: body condition, subcutaneous fat, infection status, age, and species.
Parasite infected birds did not show greater H:L ratios, poorer body condition, or lower fat measures, but in one species infected individuals showed significantly elevated leukocyte counts. Although we found little evidence for negative relationships between immune cell counts and body condition or fat measures, as might reflect underlying trade-offs in resource allocation, our results concerning hemoparasites are consistent with past work and suggest that chronic hemoparasite infections might have minimal effects on the outcome of long-distance migratory flight.