Habitat and sex differences in physiological condition of breeding Southwestern Willow Flycatchers (Empidonax traillii extimus)

Jennifer C. Owen
Mark K. Sogge
Michael D. Kern


The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus; hereafter "flycatcher") is a federally listed endangered species that breeds in densely vegetated riparian habitats dominated by native and exotic plants, including introduced monotypic saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima). Some workers have theorized that saltcedar is unsuitable habitat for the flycatcher, primarily because it generally supports a smaller and less diverse invertebrate community (the flycatcher's food base) than native habitats (e.g. Salix spp.). However, differences in insect communities between native and saltcedar habitats are not proof that saltcedar habitats are inferior. The only way to evaluate whether the habitats differ in dietary or energetic quality is to document actual food limitation or its manifestations. Measurements of an individual's body condition and metabolic state can serve as indicators of environmental stressors, such as food limitation and environmental extremes. We captured 130 flycatchers breeding in native and saltcedar habitats in Arizona and New Mexico and measured 12 variables of physiological condition. These variables included body mass, fat level, body condition index, hematocrit, plasma triglycerides, plasma free fatty acids and glycerol, plasma glucose and beta-hydroxybutyrate, plasma uric acid, total leukocyte count, and heterophil-to-lymphocyte ratio. We found substantial sex-based differences in the condition of male and female flycatchers. Ten of the 12 measures of physiological condition differed significantly between the sexes. In all cases where male and female condition differed (except mass), the differences suggest that males were in poorer condition than females. We found few habitat-based differences in flycatcher condition. Only 3 of the 12 physiological condition indices differed significantly between habitats. Our data show that, at least in some parts of the flycatcher's range, there is no evidence that flycatchers breeding in saitcedar habitats exhibit poorer nutritional condition or are suffering negative physiological affects.