The acquisition of host-specific feather lice by common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus)


All correspondence to: M. de L. Brooke, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, U.K.


This study addresses the question of how three species of flightless feather lice (Phthiraptera) specific to a brood parasitic bird, the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), are transmitted from one cuckoo generation to the next in the absence of any direct contact between parent and young. None of 21 cuckoo nestlings examined shortly before fledging carried cuckoo lice; nor were any lice found in 19 nests in which cuckoos had laid. Cuckoos returning to Japan for their first breeding season were as likely to be lousy as, and carried similar louse loads to, older birds. These field observations are consistent with data arising from examination of museum skins from European breeding areas and from African wintering areas, and it is concluded that cuckoos acquire their lice between leaving the nest in summer and returning to the breeding grounds the following spring. This acquisition probably occurs via direct body-to-body contact between cuckoos, a supposition bolstered by some observations.