The price of insulation: costs and benefits of feather delivery to nests for male tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor


  • Russell D. Dawson,

  • Erin L. O'Brien,

  • Theodore J. Mlynowski

R. D. Dawson (, E. L. O'Brien and T. J. Mlynowski, Ecosystem Science and Management Program, Univ. of Northern British Columbia, 3333 Univ. Way, Prince George, BC V2N 4Z9, Canada.


Many species of birds line their nests with feathers, and it has been hypothesized that this functions to provide a thermally stable microenvironment for the development of eggs and nestlings. Feathers in the nest may also function as a mechanism for parasite control, providing a physical barrier that protects nestlings from ectoparasites. We tested these hypotheses by performing a feather removal and addition experiment in tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor, a species well-known for lining their nests with feathers. While we found no evidence that quantity of feathers in nests influenced the ability of females to produce and incubate eggs, offspring in well-feathered nests had longer flight feathers and were structurally larger just prior to fledging that those in nests with fewer feathers. Furthermore, we also demonstrated a positive correlation between feathers and the abundance of larval blow flies Protocalliphora spp. in nests, a result opposite to that predicted by the anti-parasite hypothesis. While our study provides strong support for the insulation hypothesis, we also discuss the possibility that devoting time to feather gathering may result in males losing paternity in their nests, although manipulative studies will be necessary to fully evaluate this idea.