Chickadees Faced with Unpredictable Food Increase Fat Reserves but Certain Components of Their Immune Function Decline

Emily A. Cornelius
François Vézina
Lyette Regimbald
Fanny Hallot


In winter, temperate resident birds are often faced with periodic low natural food availability. This reduction or unpredictability in resource availability might then have a negative impact on immune function, given that immune system support is highly resource dependent. We investigated the balance between energetic and immune management in captive black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapilus) by manipulating the predictability of resources. The control group received food ad lib. every day, while the experimental group received a reduced amount of food on random days and food ad lib. on all other days. We measured two key metrics of energetic management (body and fat mass) as well as a suite of immune system components. Compared with control birds, experimental birds maintained significantly higher total body and fat mass, had lower acute phase protein concentrations, and had decreased body temperature and lost more body mass during the fever response following injection with lipopolysaccharides. Interestingly, birds in both groups had similar levels of complement lysis, delayed-type hypersensitivity response (phytohemagglutinin), and primary antibody production (keyhole limpet hemocyanin). This experiment demonstrates that black-capped chickadees strategically increase their fat mass in response to decreased food availability and that this might allow the birds to maintain most of the immune system unaltered, except some of the most costly immune components.