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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Using Fatty Acid Profiles to Assess Dietary Intake of Sunflower in Red-winged Blackbirds


In late summer, red-winged blackbirds forage heavily on ripening sunflower crops in the Dakotas. Sunflower achenes have a distinct fatty acid profile that should influence the fatty acid composition in tissues of these birds. To determine if fatty acid composition in tissue could be used as a biomarker indicating dietary history, we fed 18 red-winged blackbirds a sunflower diet for 2 weeks and compared fatty acid profiles in their muscle and liver tissues to a control group of red-winged blackbirds (n = 15) fed a birdseed mix supplemented with safflower seed. Three subjects from each treatment group were sacrificed at Day 0, 7, 14, and 21, with Day 0 the day the treated group was switched to sunflower. The remaining birds were sacrificed on Day 35. Breast muscle and liver tissue were collected, extracted, and analyzed for levels of linoleic, oleic, palmitic, and stearic acids. Differences existed in levels of all 4 fatty acids between treatment groups pooled across time (P ≤ 0.05, ANOVA). When comparing fatty acid profiles between treated and controls by day sacrificed, we observed differences in levels of ≥1 of the fatty acids at Day 7, 14, and 21 in breast muscle, and Day 7 and 14 in liver tissue (P ≤ 0.05, t-test). Within-bird comparisons of fatty acid levels in liver and breast indicated temporal lags in metabolism between tissue types (P ≤ 0.05, paired t-test). Our results demonstrated that fatty acids profiles in body tissues can be used as biomarkers to verify recent foraging in sunflower by red-winged blackbirds.

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