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Keywords:

  • bacteria;
  • feather colour;
  • hatching success;
  • lining material;
  • nest building;
  • sexual selection

Many bird species use feathers as lining material, and its functionality has traditionally been linked to nest insulation. However, nest lining feathers may also influence nest detection by predators, differentially affect reproductive investment of mates in a post-mating sexual selection process, and affect the bacterial community of the nest environment. Most of these functions of nest lining feathers could affect hatching success, but the effect might vary depending on feather coloration (i.e. pigmented versus white feathers). This would be the case if coloration is related to: (1) thermoregulatory properties; (2) attractiveness of feathers in the nest for mates; (3) eggshell bacterial density. All of these hypothetical scenarios predict that feathers of different colours would differentially affect the hatching success of birds, and that birds should preferentially choose the most beneficial feather colour for lining their nests. Results from two different experiments performed with a population of Danish barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, were in accordance with these predictions. First, H. rustica preferentially selected white experimentally offered feathers for lining their nests. Second, the experimental manipulation of the feather colour composition of nests of H. rustica had a significant effect on hatching success. Experimental nests with more white feathers added at the beginning of incubation had a lower probability of hatching failures, suggesting differential beneficial effects of lining nests with feathers of this colour. We discuss the relative importance of hypothetical functional scenarios that predicted the detected associations, including those related to sexual selection or to the community of microorganisms associated with feathers of different colours. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 67–74.