Nutritional stress and body condition in the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) during winter irruptive migrations

The largest irruptive migration of the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa Forster, 1772) recorded since 1831 occurred in Minnesota, USA, during the winter of 2004-2005. We tested the hypothesis that morphometric indicators of nutritional stress covary with stable isotope signatures in a sample of 265 owls killed by vehicle collisions. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen in muscle (C/N-muscle) was shown to be a reliable proxy of nutritional stress. delta C-13 values for liver and muscle were significantly higher in owls in poor condition, reflecting the depletion of lipid reserves in fasting individuals. On the other hand, delta N-15 values for liver and muscle were marginally lower or unchanged in owls in poor condition. Stomachs of emaciated owls were less likely to contain prey, implying that many nutritionally stressed individuals were too weak to hunt and were near the tipping point of irreversible fasts. In a broader context, sexual differences in the correlative relationships between stable isotope signatures, C/N, and body condition suggest that the consequences of reversed sexual size dimorphism extend to physiological processes during the nonbreeding season.