Food insecurity increases energetic efficiency, not food consumption: An exploratory study in European starlings

Melissa Bateson*, Clare Andrews, Jonathon Dunn, Charlotte B.C.M. Egger, Francesca Gray, Molly McHugh, Daniel Nettle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Food insecurity—defined as limited or unpredictable access to nutritionally adequate food—is associated with higher body mass in humans and birds. It is widely assumed that food insecurity-induced fattening is caused by increased food consumption, but there is little evidence supporting this in any species. We developed a novel technology for measuring foraging, food intake and body mass in small groups of aviary-housed European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Across four exploratory experiments, we demonstrate that birds responded to 1–2 weeks of food insecurity by increasing their body mass despite eating less. Food-insecure birds therefore increased their energetic efficiency, calculated as the body mass maintained per unit of food consumed. Mass gain was greater in birds that were lighter at baseline and in birds that faced greater competition for access to food. Whilst there was variation between experiments in mass gain and food consumption under food insecurity, energetic efficiency always increased. Bomb calorimetry of guano showed reduced energy density under food insecurity, suggesting that the energy assimilated from food increased. Behavioural observations of roosting showed inconsistent evidence for reduced physical activity under food insecurity. Increased energetic efficiency continued for 1–2 weeks after food security was reinstated, indicating an asymmetry in the speed of the response to food insecurity and the recovery from it. Future work to understand the mechanisms underlying food insecurity-induced mass gain should focus on the biological changes mediating increased energetic efficiency rather than increased energy consumption.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11541
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 28 May 2021
Externally publishedYes

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