Flexibility in the timing of post-breeding moult in passerines in the UK

Catriona A. Morrison, Stephen R. Baillie, Jacquie A. Clark, Alison Johnston, David I. Leech, Robert A. Robinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Higher temperatures resulting from climate change have led to predictions that the duration of the breeding season of many temperate bird species may be changing. However, the extent to which breeding seasons can be altered will also depend on the degree of flexibility in processes occurring at other points in the annual cycle. In particular, plasticity in the timing of post-breeding moult (PBM) could facilitate changes in the timing of key events throughout the annual cycle, but little is known about the level of within- and between-species plasticity in PBM. As part of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Ringing Scheme, many ringers routinely record moult scores of flight feathers, and these can be used to provide information on the annual progression of PBM for a range of species. Here we use ringing data to investigate patterns of PBM in 15 passerines, as well as data from the BTO Nest Record Scheme to relate these differences to the timing of breeding of these species across the UK. We find considerable variation in both the mean start (19 May-29 July) and duration (66-111 days) of PBM between species, but find no evidence that species starting PBM later in the season complete it any faster. However, there is considerable within-species variation in PBM, particularly for multi-brooded species; PBM starts later and is completed in less time when the duration of the breeding season (difference between first and last nests) is longer. This implies that a later end to breeding can be compensated for by faster PBM, and that advances in breeding could lead to earlier and slower PBM. Our findings suggest that adaptation of PBM in response to climate-mediated changes in the timing and duration of the breeding season is possible. However, the requirement to complete PBM prior to migration or the onset of winter might constrain the extent to which breeding seasons can lengthen, especially for later nesting species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-350
Number of pages11
Issue number2
Early online date26 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2015


  • Annual cycles
  • Autumn
  • Breeding season
  • Climate change
  • Migration
  • Phenology

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