Environment, behavior and physiology: do birds use barometric pressure to predict storms?
ABSTRACT Severe storms can pose a grave challenge to the temperature and energy homeostasis of small endothermic vertebrates. Storms are accompanied by lower temperatures and wind, increasing metabolic expenditure, and can inhibit foraging, thereby limiting energy intake. To avoid these potential problems, most endotherms have mechanisms for offsetting the energetic risks posed by storms. One possibility is to use cues to predict oncoming storms and to alter physiology and behavior in ways that make survival more likely. Barometric pressure declines predictably before inclement weather, and several lines of evidence indicate that animals alter behavior based on changes in ambient pressure. Here we examined the effects of declining barometric pressure on physiology and behavior in the white-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys. Using field data from a long-term study, we first evaluated the relationship between barometric pressure, storms and stress physiology in free-living white-crowned sparrows. We then manipulated barometric pressure experimentally in the laboratory and determined how it affects activity, food intake, metabolic rates and stress physiology. The field data showed declining barometric pressure in the 12-24 h preceding snowstorms, but we found no relationship between barometric pressure and stress physiology. The laboratory study showed that declining barometric pressure stimulated food intake, but had no effect on metabolic rate or stress physiology. These data suggest that white-crowned sparrows can sense and respond to declining barometric pressure, and we propose that such an ability may be common in wild vertebrates, especially small ones for whom individual storms can be life-threatening events.