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Experimental addition of greenery reduces flea loads in nests of a non-greenery using species, the tree swallow Tachycineta bicolor


  • Dave Shutler,

  • Adam A. Campbell

D. Shutler (correspondence), Department of Biology, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, B4P 2R6, Canada. E-mail: - A. Campbell, 29 Academy Street, Hillsborough, New Brunswick, E4H 2R3, Canada.


Several bird species, including cavity-nesters such as European starlings Sturnus vulgaris, add to their nests green sprigs of plants such as yarrow Achillea millefolium that are rich in volatile compounds. In this field study on another cavity-nester, tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor, we tested whether yarrow reduced ectoparasite loads (the nest protection hypothesis), stimulated nestling immune systems (the drug hypothesis), or had other consequences for nestling growth or parental reproductive success (predicted by both preceding hypotheses). Tree swallows do not naturally add greenery to their nests, and thus offer several advantages in testing for effects of greenery independent of other potentially confounding explanations for the behaviour. We placed fresh yarrow in 23 swallow nests on the day the first egg was laid, replenishing every two days until clutch completion (=three times), and at 44 control nests, nesting material was simply touched. At 12 days of age, we measured nestling body size and mass, and took blood smears to do differential white blood cell counts. We subsequently determined the number and proportion of young fledging from nests and the number of fleas remaining after fledging. Higher humidity was associated with higher flea numbers whereas number of feathers in the nest was not. Our most significant finding was that an average of 773 fleas Ceratophyllus idius was found in control nests, versus 419 in yarrow nests. Possibly, parents compensate for blood that nestlings lose to ectoparasites by increasing food delivery, because we detected no differences between treatments in nestling mass, nestling leukocyte profiles, or proportion of young fledging, or relative to flea numbers. Our results provide no support for the drug hypothesis and strong support for the nest protection hypothesis.