Low ambient temperature increases food intake and dropping production, leading to incorrect estimates of hormone metabolite concentrations in European stonechats

Horm Behav. 2006 May;49(5):644-53. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2005.12.006. Epub 2006 Feb 15.


Non-invasive methods to measure steroid hormone metabolites in bird droppings or mammalian feces have become very popular. However, the accuracy of these measurements may be affected by many factors. Here, we use the stonechat (Saxicola torquata) as a passerine bird model to test whether differences in ambient temperature affect food intake and dropping production and whether these changes lead to measurement artefacts in hormone metabolite concentrations. In addition, we tested for diurnal patterns in hormone metabolites. We held European stonechats in climate chambers and subjected them to two different long-term ambient temperature regimes, +5 degrees C and +22 degrees C. As expected, food intake and dropping production was higher at +5 degrees C than at +22 degrees C. Plasma concentrations of corticosterone and testosterone did not differ between different ambient temperature regimes. However, corticosterone and testosterone metabolite concentrations (in ng/g) were significantly lower at +5 degrees C than at +22 degrees C. When we measured the rate of hormone metabolite excretion (in picogram per hour) instead of the concentration, there was no difference between treatment groups. Thus, the measurement of hormone metabolite concentrations can be flawed because, depending on the treatment, similar amounts of hormone metabolites can be excreted into very different amounts of droppings. In conclusion, hormone metabolite concentration measurements are sensitive to changes in ambient temperature and probably any other factor that alters metabolic rates. Any study involving systematic changes in metabolism--i.e., during molt, migration, hibernation, egg production, or seasonal comparisons--needs to take these caveats into account.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Cold Temperature*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Corticosterone / metabolism*
  • Eating / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Europe
  • Feces
  • Male
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Testosterone / blood
  • Testosterone / metabolism*


  • Testosterone
  • Corticosterone