Behavioural responses to ectoparasites in pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca: an experimental study


A. Cantarero, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales – CSIC, Depto Ecología Evolutiva, C/ José Gutiérrez Abascal 2, ES-28006 Madrid, Spain. E-mail:


Nests of cavity-nesting birds usually harbor some species of haematophagous ectoparasites that feed on the incubating adults and nestlings. Given the negative impact of ectoparasites on nestlings there will be selection on hosts to reduce parasite infestations through behavioural means. We have experimentally reduced the abundance of all ectoparasites in nests of pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca to explore both whether there are changes in the frequency and duration of putative anti-parasite behaviours by tending adults, as well as whether such anti-parasite behaviours are able to compensate for the deleterious effects that parasites may have on nestlings. Heat treatment of nests substantially decreased the density of ectoparasites, and thereby positively affected nestling growth. The frequency and intensity of female grooming and nest sanitation behaviours during the incubation and nestling periods decreased as a consequence of the experimental reduction of ectoparasite infestation. Although nestlings begged more intensely in infested nests, the experiment had no significant effect on parental provisioning effort. Reduction of parasites resulted in larger nestlings shortly before fledging and increased fledging success. This study shows a clear effect of a complete natural nest ectoparasite fauna on parental behaviour at the nest and nestling growth in a cavity-nesting bird. Although ectoparasites induce anti-parasite behaviours in females, these behaviours are not able to fully remove parasite's deleterious effects on nestling growth and survival.