We used captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to test whether corticosterone responses differed in birds held under normal laboratory conditions or conditions of chronic stress. Surprisingly, both basal corticosterone concentrations and corticosterone responses to acute stress were significantly reduced when birds were chronically stressed. To determine the mechanism underlying this reduced response, animals under both conditions were injected with lactated Ringer's solution (control), adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), arginine vasotocin (AVT), or dexamethasone (DEX). ACTH increased corticosterone concentrations above stress-induced levels in both cases, although maximum responses were lower in chronically stressed birds. AVT did not augment the corticosterone response under nonchronically stressed conditions, but it did under chronically stressed conditions. DEX reduced maximal corticosterone concentrations in both cases. Neither ovine nor rat corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) altered normal stress responses. These data indicate that changes in responsiveness of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to ACTH and AVT serve to downregulate corticosterone responses during chronic stress. Furthermore, these data lead to the following hypothesis: ACTH output from the pituitary limits maximum corticosterone concentrations under normal conditions, but reduced AVT release from the hypothalamus regulates lower corticosterone concentrations under chronic stress conditions.