Causes, mechanisms and consequences of songbird migration

Causes, mechanisms, benefits, and consequences of a migratory life

Why do some animals migrate long distances and others do not? What makes this decision? We study these fundamental questions using the Common blackbird (Turdus merula), which is either stationary year-round, partially, or fully migratory. We use ICARUS tracking and logger technology to determine natural movement behaviour at unprecedented fine-scale temporal and spatial resolutions. In our common garden aviary facilities, we breed and experimentally manipulate environmental conditions of individuals originating from populations with different overwintering strategies. Using reciprocal translocation, we release captive and wild individuals back into each of the parents' environments to study gene by environment interactions of movement decisions.

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Icarus: Why do our birds disappear?


Real-time tracking of a blackbird migrating to its wintering site equipped with an air pressure tag to quantify flight altitude.

Ongoing Projects

How individuals know whether, when, where and how to migrate may vary with species and their degree of sociality. In some taxa, where animals migrate together in groups, such as in geese or cranes, the young appear to learn from older birds, including aspects of the seasonal timing, migration routes and wintering areas. In many other species, however, individuals may migrate alone, unaided by conspecifics... [more]
Developing young animals rely on parental care to buffer them from harsh conditions, and when and where parents choose to reproduce affects the environment offspring experience. We perform experiments in our breeding aviaries by manipulating ambient nest temperatures to study to what extent early life conditions shape thermoregulatory capacity... [more]
In contrast to other migratory model systems where migratory traits vary continuously, the beauty of partial migration is the clear-cut behavioral dichotomy of migrant versus resident phenotypes, making it a powerful model system to study the genomic basis of migration. We performed transcriptomic analyses and detected four differentially expressed genes between migrants and residents... [more]
The first year of life, when many animal species are searching for suitable habitats and reproductive partners, is one of the most critical phases in their life history and particularly interesting for many aspects in evolution, ecology and environmental protection. Especially for smaller and highly mobile species, like the Common blackbird, these dispersal processes within the first year ... [more]
Migration is an endurance event that requires proper training and fuel. While human athletes that fail to eat optimally before endurance competitions may cost themselves a chance at medaling or qualifying for future events, wild animals that fail to fuel themselves properly before undertaking migrations risk far more consequential costs like missed breeding opportunities or death. ... [more]
The energetics and decision-making process underlying whether to migrate or not are still largely unexplored. What are the energetic benefits of migrating to milder wintering areas versus staying at the breeding sites? We investigate these questions with the partially migratory Common blackbird. Using radio telemetry and implantable heart rate and body temperature data loggers we quantify the energetic costs ... [more]
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