Physiological responses to food deprivation in the house sparrow, a species not adapted to prolonged fasting

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2012 Sep 1;303(5):R551-61. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00076.2012. Epub 2012 Jul 11.


Many wild birds fast during reproduction, molting, migration, or because of limited food availability. Species that are adapted to fasting sequentially oxidize endogenous fuels in three discrete phases. We hypothesized that species not adapted to long fasts have truncated, but otherwise similar, phases of fasting, sequential changes in fuel oxidization, and similar changes in blood metabolites to fasting-adapted species. We tested salient predictions in house sparrows (Passer domesticus biblicus), a subspecies that is unable to tolerate more than ~32 h of fasting. Our main hypothesis was that fasting sparrows sequentially oxidize substrates in the order carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. We dosed 24 house sparrows with [(13)C]glucose, palmitic acid, or glycine and measured (13)CO(2) in their breath while they fasted for 24 h. To ascertain whether blood metabolite levels reflect fasting-induced changes in metabolic fuels, we also measured glucose, triacylglycerides, and β-hydroxybutyrate in the birds' blood. The results of both breath (13)CO(2) and plasma metabolite analyses did not support our hypothesis; i.e., that sparrows have the same metabolic responses characteristic of fasting-adapted species, but on a shorter time scale. Contrary to our main prediction, we found that recently assimilated (13)C-tracers were oxidized continuously in different patterns with no definite peaks corresponding to the three phases of fasting and also that changes in plasma metabolite levels accurately tracked the changes found by breath analysis. Notably, the rate of recently assimilated [(13)C]glycine oxidization was significantly higher (P < 0.001) than that of the other metabolic tracers at all postdosing intervals. We conclude that the inability of house sparrows to fast for longer than 32 h is likely related to their inability to accrue large lipid stores, separately oxidize different fuels, and/or spare protein during fasting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Breath Tests
  • Carbon Isotopes / metabolism
  • Fasting / physiology*
  • Food Deprivation / physiology*
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Glycine / metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism / physiology
  • Sparrows / physiology*
  • Time Factors


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Glucose
  • Glycine