Evidence that plumage bacteria influence feather coloration and body condition of eastern bluebirds Sialia sialis


  • Alex R. Gunderson,

  • Mark H. Forsyth,

  • John P. Swaddle

A. R. Gunderson, M. H. Forsyth and J. P. Swaddle, Inst. for Integr. Bird Behav. Stud., Dept. of Biol., the Coll. of William and Mary, Virginia, USA. – Present address of ARG: Dept. of Biol., Duke Univ., Durham, NC, USA. E-mail: alexander.gunderson@duke.edu.


Parasites influence the expression of secondary sexual traits and the health of infected individuals. We set out to test the influence of reputed exogenous parasites, plumage bacteria, including feather-degrading bacteria (FDB), on secondary sexual characteristics and body condition of wild adult eastern bluebirds Sialia sialis. Previous work has shown that FDB alter the coloration of structurally-colored bluebird feathers in vitro (Shawkey et al. 2007). In a correlational study of how bacteria affect birds in the wild, we found that female plumage got duller with increasing FDB intensity. Males tended to get brighter with increasing FDB intensity, but the relationship was not significant. We also found significant associations between plumage bacteria intensity and body condition, but, again, with gender-based differences. Female body condition was negatively associated with plumage bacteria intensity, while male body condition was positively associated with plumage bacteria intensity. Interestingly, plumage bacteria intensity of males and females in nesting pairs was significantly positively correlated. We also report the highest prevalence of FDB measured in a wild bird population, with FDB detected on 67/68 (99%) of individuals. Further work is needed to fully understand the relationships between plumage bacteria and birds, but our data indicate that plumage bacteria may have sex-dependent effects on multiple phenotypic traits.