Short-term and long-term effects of food supply on parasite burdens in Tawny Owls, Strix aluco



1. The relationships among food supply (Field Voles, Microtus agrestis), reproduction and blood parasites was investigated in Tawny Owls, Strix aluco, in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, in 1994 and 1995. Vole populations were significantly lower in 1995 than in 1994.

2. Birds did not lose parasites after initial infection, and the level at which infections were maintained was characteristic of individual birds.

3. In 1994, the number and intensity of parasites was higher in adult owls that had experienced low food supply when they themselves were reared. This indicated that food supplied to chicks in the nest has a long-term effect on the parasite burden of adults.

4. In addition, there was evidence that parasite burdens of adults were influenced by their current food supply. Birds that suffered a decline in food abundance on their territories between 1994 and 1995 showed an increase in parasite load over the same period. In 1995, there was also a significant negative correlation between the parasite loads of owls and vole abundance on their territories.

5. The best predictor of parasite number of chicks reared in 1995 was the parasite load of their fathers. The parasites chicks developed were not the parasites with which their fathers were heavily infested. This result could be due to inherited immunity.

6. Our results indicated that food resources should be measured when investigating interactions between parasites and their hosts, and that offspring quality as well as quantity might suffer when food abundance is low.