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Proc Biol Sci. 2003 December 22; 270(1533): 2599–2604.
PMCID: PMC1691552

Long-term moderate elevation of corticosterone facilitates avian food-caching behaviour and enhances spatial memory.


It is widely assumed that chronic stress and corresponding chronic elevations of glucocorticoid levels have deleterious effects on animals' brain functions such as learning and memory. Some animals, however, appear to maintain moderately elevated levels of glucocorticoids over long periods of time under natural energetically demanding conditions, and it is not clear whether such chronic but moderate elevations may be adaptive. I implanted wild-caught food-caching mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli), which rely at least in part on spatial memory to find their caches, with 90-day continuous time-release corticosterone pellets designed to approximately double the baseline corticosterone levels. Corticosterone-implanted birds cached and consumed significantly more food and showed more efficient cache recovery and superior spatial memory performance compared with placebo-implanted birds. Thus, contrary to prevailing assumptions, long-term moderate elevations of corticosterone appear to enhance spatial memory in food-caching mountain chickadees. These results suggest that moderate chronic elevation of corticosterone may serve as an adaptation to unpredictable environments by facilitating feeding and food-caching behaviour and by improving cache-retrieval efficiency in food-caching birds.

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