Metabolic adjustments of small passerine birds for migration and cold

Am J Physiol. 1983 Dec;245(6):R755-67. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.1983.245.6.R755.


Passerines (members of the order Passeriformes such as finches, chickadees, jays, and warblers) are predominantly small birds characterized by relatively intense metabolic rates. Members of this group breeding at middle or high latitudes may either evade winter cold by migration or enhance their resistance to it by acclimatization. We review the energetic consequences associated with these two modes of response. Despite their apparent dissimilarity, migration and winter acclimatization both depend on substantial aerobic endurance, and both involve extensive power outputs by the flight muscles in locomotion or shivering. Such power outputs entail extensive deposition and catabolism of fat. Information available on these processes and their control in passerine birds is discussed. Knowledge of them is still in a formative stage, but it is already clear that aerobic capacity of passerines is stable at a high level throughout the year. However, changes are observed in the activity of certain enzymes involved in the catabolism of fats and carbohydrates. Full interpretation of these findings must await additional research. Nevertheless it is evident that the complex processes of migration and winter acclimatization are intimately linked with the metabolic properties of the highly aerobic skeletal muscle contained within the flight apparatus of passerines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Cold Climate
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Seasons