Exogenous corticosterone and melanin-based coloration explain variation in juvenile dispersal behaviour in the barn owl (Tyto alba)

PLoS One. 2021 Sep 7;16(9):e0256038. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256038. eCollection 2021.


Natal dispersal affects many processes such as population dynamics. So far, most studies have examined the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that determine the distance between the place of birth and of first breeding. In contrast, few researchers followed the first steps of dispersal soon after fledging. To study this gap, we radio-tracked 95 barn owl nestlings (Tyto alba) to locate their diurnal roost sites from the fledging stage until December. This was used to test whether the age of nest departure, post-fledging movements and dispersal distance were related to melanin-based coloration, which is correlated to fitness-related traits, as well as to corticosterone, a hormone that mediates a number of life history trade-offs and the physiological and behavioural responses to stressful situations. We found that the artificial administration of corticosterone delayed the age when juveniles left their parental home-range in females but not in males. During the first few months after fledging, longer dispersal distances were reached by females compared to males, by individuals marked with larger black feather spots compared to individuals with smaller spots, by larger individuals and by those experimentally treated with corticosterone. We conclude that the onset and magnitude of dispersal is sensitive to the stress hormone corticosterone, melanin-based coloration and body size.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Distribution / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Corticosterone / metabolism*
  • Feathers / physiology*
  • Female
  • Homing Behavior / physiology*
  • Male
  • Melanins / metabolism*
  • Nesting Behavior / physiology*
  • Phenotype
  • Pigmentation
  • Strigiformes / growth & development*
  • Strigiformes / metabolism


  • Melanins
  • Corticosterone

Grants and funding

The Swiss National Science Foundation supported financially the study (no 3100A0-104134 to LJ and no PPOOAO-102913 to AR). CM was supported by a grant from the Swiss Confederation (no 2015.0788).