Effective conservation of migratory bird populations depends on advancements in our understanding of processes throughout the life cycle. Fundamental information about wintering ecology (e.g., habitat use and diet composition) remains limited, which limits assessment of threats to populations during winter. Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) is a year-round grassland obligate and Nearctic-Neotropical migrant that undergoes 2 complete molts each year, including a complete prealternate molt on the South American wintering grounds. This unusual winter molt provides a rare opportunity to examine, using stable isotope analysis, the timing and contribution of foraging resources in the Bobolink diet prior to northbound migration from disparate breeding populations. We compared winter diet composition among 3 breeding populations of Bobolinks and during 3 stages of winter molt using stable carbon isotope ratios. We used mixing models to compare the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 isotope (δ13C value) in feathers—grown on the wintering grounds but collected from individuals (n = 105) breeding in Vermont, Nebraska, and North Dakota, USA—to estimate diet during early, middle, and late winter molt. Across the 3 breeding populations, Bobolinks relied on C3 sources for nearly one-third of their diet during the winter molt. Isotope data from feathers collected while growing on the wintering grounds from birds in rice vs. non-rice regions supported our assumption that C3 signatures are primarily due to a rice diet. The proportion of rice consumed was highest during late molt, corresponding with a period of greater rice availability to Bobolinks. Our results demonstrate that rice was a substantial component of the diet throughout the winter molt and was most exploited prior to northbound migration. Research is needed on the potential trade-offs of feeding on abundant cultivated rice, including its nutritional value and associated risks and conflicts from foraging in an agricultural setting.
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Vol. 119 • No. 3