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Keywords:

  • bending stiffness ;
  • feather structure ;
  • infection ;
  • moult ;
  • uropygial gland size

Parasites usurp indispensable resources for birds during a moult, and this is particularly relevant for those parasites residing in host intestines. This might compromise the nutritionally demanding moult and, thus, feather functionality. Although lower feather quality has profound and multifaceted adverse effects on residual fitness, surprisingly, little is known about parasites' effect on feather traits, especially over the longer term. We conducted an aviary experiment by medicating half of a group of naturally infested house sparrows Passer domesticus against intestinal coccidians for 15 months, spanning two consecutive postnuptial moults, whereas the other half was kept infested (i.e. without medication). Coccidian infestation significantly and negatively affected the size of the uropygial gland during the second moulting period compared to the medicated group. Furthermore, wing length was significantly shorter after the second moulting in the non-medicated compared to the medicated female birds, which indicates that the negative effects of coccidians emerge only after a prolonged exposure to parasite infestation. Non-medicated birds grew poorer quality flight feathers detected in a large number of feather traits both after the first and second moults. In the case of non-medicated birds, the primaries were lighter and shorter, and had a smaller vane area, thinner rachis and decreased stiffness, although a higher barb and barbule density, which may have various consequences for fitness through reducing flight performance. Our findings demonstrate that, besides the well-known immediate consequences for host breeding success, parasites might also have serious, long-lasting effects through influencing feather quality and, ultimately, fitness of the host. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London