Circannual rhythms in birds

Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2003 Dec;13(6):770-8. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2003.10.010.


In many birds, reproduction, molt, migration and other seasonal activities are controlled by endogenous circannual rhythmicity. Under constant conditions, this rhythm persists for many cycles with a period deviating from 12 months. Whether or not the rhythm is expressed depends on day length (photoperiod), which thus represents an important permissive factor in the process of rhythm generation. In nature, circannual rhythms are usually synchronized by the seasonal changes in photoperiod. However, equatorial birds may use daytime light intensity, which changes with the annual cycle of dry and rainy seasons, as a synchronizing zeitgeber. Photoperiod also modulates the rate of progress of the successive phases of the rhythmicity, such that an optimal adjustment to the annual environmental cycle is guaranteed. Populations of a given species may differ in their responsiveness to photoperiod in a manner that can be described as 'adaptive population-specific reaction norms'. In young migratory songbirds a circannual program determines changes in migratory direction and, at least partly, the time course and distance of migration. This circannual mechanism is replaced or supplemented in older birds by mechanisms formed on the basis of learning and memory. In general, circannual rhythms are intimately involved in the seasonal organization of a bird's behavior, providing the substrate onto which seasonal environmental factors act.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks / physiology*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Molting / physiology*
  • Photoperiod
  • Seasons