Date:July 13, 2016
Source:Central Ornithology Publication Office
A new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advanceslinks feather-degrading bacteria to damaged plumage on wild birds for the first time, offering new insights into how birds' ecology and behavior might affect their exposure to these little-studied microbes.
Scientists know surprisingly little about the diverse community of microbes that lives on bird feathers. A few of these species of bacteria can actually break down keratin, the material feathers are made of, but few studies have looked at how feather-degrading bacteria actually affect birds in the wild. Combining data from a decade's worth of bird-banding studies, Cody Kent and Edward H. Burtt of Ohio Wesleyan University found that tail-feather wear was strongly correlated with the presence of feather-degrading bacteria -- the first time this relationship has been demonstrated in live, wild birds.
Kent and Burtt's dataset included more than 3,500 birds from 154 different species captured between 1996 and 2005, in locations ranging from a rural Ohio backyard to Canada's Bay of Fundy to a Louisiana bayou. Researchers carefully wiped each bird's plumage across petri dishes containing a growth medium to culture any microorganisms living in the feathers. Ground-foraging, aerial-foraging, and fly-catching birds had a higher prevalence of feather-degrading bacteria, while nectivorous, tree-probing, and marine-foraging birds were less likely to harbor the microbes.