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Social Status, Circulating Levels of Hormones, and Competition for Food in Winter Flocks of the White-Throated Sparrow

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We measured plasma levels of luteinizing hormone (LH), testosterone (T), 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and corticosterone (B) in flocks of wintering white-throated sparrows. This species occurs in two colour morphs that are distinguishable by white or tan colour of the median crown stripe and differ in frequency of agonistic behaviour during the reproductive season. During winter, white-throated sparrows form flocks that are characterized by dominance hierarchies, in which social rank was correlated with sex and age, but not with crown colour. Plasma levels of LH and androgens (T and DHT) were basal in most free-living and captive birds and not correlated with sex, age, morph or social rank. Plasma levels of testosterone did not increase in captive groups, when aggressive interactions increased due to experimental manipulation of distribution and amount of food. These results suggest (1) that dominant-subordinate relationships during the wintering phase are not based on differential aggression of plumage types and (2) that they are not maintained by elevated plasma levels of androgens in high-ranking birds. Plasma concentrations of B increased rapidly with duration of capture stress in females and first-year males, but not in adult males. Since adult males were of highest rank it appears that high social status may restrain acute adrenal response to stress. Further, baseline levels of B were highest in low-ranking first-year females and lowest in high-ranking adult males. In captive groups, amount and distribution of food resources altered levels of B. Levels appeared to be most variable and very high in some birds of intermediate rank, when agonistic interactions in competition for food were most frequent. This suggests greater impact of change in food distribution on those birds, whose social status is less clear than that of high or low ranking birds.

Affiliations: 1: (The Rockefeller University Field Research Center, Tyrrel Road, Millbrook, NY 12545, U.S.A, Department of Zoology, University of Washington, Seattle, Wa. 98195, U.S.A; 2: (The Rockefeller University Field Research Center, Tyrrel Road, Millbrook, NY 12545, U.S.A

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