Neonatal Handling Alters The Development of The Adrenocortical Response to Stress in a Wild Songbird (Eastern Bluebird, Sialia Sialis)

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Neonatal handling may have species-specific effects in wild birds. Neonatal handling of captive vertebrates can shape the development of their hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and alter their ability to respond to stressful stimuli later in life. However, the long-term effects of such handling on this endocrine axis in free-living species are not well understood. We investigated the effects of age and neonatal handling on corticosterone secretion in response to restraint in eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) chicks. We found that unhandled ("naïve") and handled ("experienced") chicks exhibited no corticosterone response to handling early in development. Thereafter, naïve individuals exhibited the progressive development of a corticosterone response with age, and by day 12 post-hatch, the response resembled that of adult bluebirds. Experienced nestlings, which were handled every other day from the day of hatch, showed a similar pattern of HPA development until day 12 post-hatch, when their corticosterone response was significantly reduced compared to that of naïve nestlings. In contrast, chicks that were handled only once, when 10. days old, did not show a reduced corticosterone response at 12. days old. Taken together, our data suggest that a certain threshold of accumulated neonatal handling episodes is necessary to depress corticosterone secretion, and/or that the cumulative effects of several handling episodes only manifest themselves once the HPA axis is fully developed. Our findings, in concert with studies on two other wild species, indicate that routine handling of nestlings in the field can alter their responses to stress in a species-specific manner, potentially leading to important fitness consequences. © 2013 Elsevier Inc.


Corticosterone, Eastern bluebird, Neonatal handling, Stress response

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