Body condition (i.e. relative mass after correcting for structural size) affects the behaviour of migrating birds, but how body condition affects migratory performance, timing and fitness is still largely unknown. Here, we studied the effects of relative body condition on individual departure decisions, wind selectivity, flight speed and timing of migration for a long-distance migratory shorebird, the red knot Calidris canutus rufa. By using automated VHF telemetry on a continental scale, we studied knots’ migratory movements with unprecedented temporal resolution over a 3-year period. Knots with a higher relative body condition left the staging site later than birds in lower condition, yet still arrived earlier to their Arctic breeding grounds compared to knots in lower relative body condition. They accomplished this by selecting more favourable winds at departure, thereby flying faster and making shorter stops en route. Individuals with a higher relative body condition in spring migrated south up to a month later than individuals in lower condition, suggesting that individuals in better condition were more likely to have bred successfully. Moreover, individuals with a lower relative body condition in spring had a lower probability of being detected in autumn, suggestive of increased mortality. The pressure to arrive early to the breeding grounds is considered to be an important constraint of migratory behaviour and this study highlights the important influence of body condition on migratory decisions, performance and potentially fitness of migrant birds.
PUBLICATION AVAILABLE AT: http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.1374