Niche shifts and energetic condition of songbirds in response to phenology of food-resource availability in a high-elevation sagebrush ecosystem
Cutting, Kyle A.
Anderson, Michelle L.
Schroff, Sean R.
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Seasonal fluctuations in food availability can affect diets of consumers, which in turn may influence the physiological state of individuals and shape intra- and inter-specific patterns of resource use. High-elevation ecosystems often exhibit a pronounced seasonal “pulse” in productivity, although few studies document how resource use and energetic condition by avian consumers change in relation to food-resource availability in these ecosystems. We tested the hypothesis that seasonal increases (pulses) in food resources in high-elevation sagebrush ecosystems result in 2 changes after the pulse, relative to the before-pulse period: (1) reduced diet breadth of, and overlap between, 2 sympatric sparrow species; and (2) enhanced energetic condition in both species. We tracked breeding-season diets using stable isotopes and energetic condition using plasma metabolites of Brewer's Sparrows (Spizella breweri), Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and their food resources during 2011, and of only Brewer's Sparrows and their food resources during 2013. We quantify diet breadth and overlap between both species, along with coincident physiological consequences of temporal changes in resource use. After invertebrate biomass increased following periods of rainfall in 2011, dietary breadth decreased by 35% in Brewer's Sparrows and by 48% in Vesper Sparrows, while dietary overlap decreased by 88%. Energetic condition of both species increased when dietary overlap was lower and diet breadth decreased, after the rapid rise of food-resource availability. However, energetic condition of Brewer's Sparrows remained constant in 2013, a year with low precipitation and lack of a strong pulse in food resources, even though the species' dietary breadth again decreased that year. Our results indicate that diet breadth and overlap in these sparrow species inhabiting sagebrush ecosystems generally varied as predicted in relation to intra- and interannual changes in food resources, and this difference in diet was associated with improved energetic condition of sparrows at least in one year.