Validating growth and development of a seabird as an indicator of food availability: captive-reared Caspian Tern chicks fed ad libitum and restricted diets
For seabirds raising young under conditions of limited food availability, reducing chick provisioning and chick growth rates are the primary means available to avoid abandonment of a breeding effort. For mostseabirds,however,baselinedatacharacterizingchickgrowthanddevelopmentunderknownfeedingconditions are unavailable, so it is difficult to evaluate chick nutritional status as it relates to foraging conditions near breeding colonies. To address this need, we examined the growth and development of young Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia), a cosmopolitan, generalist piscivore, reared in captivity and fed ad libitum and restricted (ca. one-third lower caloric intake) diets. Ad libitum-fed chicks grew at similar rates and achieved a similar size at fledging as previously documented for chicks in the wild and had energetic demands that closely matched allometric predictions. We identified three general characteristics of food-restricted Caspian Tern chicks compared to ad libitum chicks: (1) lower age-specific body mass, (2) lower age-specific skeletal and feather size, such as wing chord length, and (3) heightened levels of corticosterone in blood, both for baseline levels and in response to acute stress. Effects of diet restriction on feather growth (10-11% slower growth in diet-restricted chicks) were less pronounced than effects on structural growth (37-52% slower growth) and body mass (24% lower at fledging age), apparently due to preferential allocation of food resources to maintain plumage growth. Our results suggest that measurements of chick body mass and feather development (e.g., wing chord or primary length) or measurement of corticosterone levels in the blood would allow useful evaluation of the nutritional status of chicks reared in the wild and of food availability in the foraging range of adults. Such evaluations could also inform demography studies (e.g., predict future recruitment) and assist in evaluating designated piscivorous waterbird conservation (colony) sites.