How birds combat ectoparasites:
morphology, behavior and eco-immunology

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Birds are plagued by an impressive diversity of ectoparasites, including feather-feeding lice, blood-feeding mites, ticks, flies, fleas and true bugs, as well as feather-degrading bacteria. Many of these ectoparasites have severe negative effects on host fitness. It is thus not surprising that selection on birds has favored many possible adaptations for combating ectoparasites. Unfortunately, the functional significance of many of these purported defenses has not been tested rigorously. Over the years we have tested many adaptations, particularly those related to anti-parasite behavior. We continue to be very interested in this topic!

Related publications

Please note that the PDFs are for personal use only, definitive versions are available from the publishers.

Goodman, G. B., S. A. Conner, S. E. Bush, and D. H. Clayton. In review. Is allopreening a stimulus-driven defense against ectoparasites? Journal of Parasitology.

Bush, S. E. and D. H. Clayton. 2018. Anti-parasite behavior of birds.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 373: 20170196. PDF.

Villa, S. M., J. A. H. Koop, C. Le Bohec and D. H. Clayton. 2018. Beak of the pinch: Anti-parasite traits are similar among Darwin’s finch species. Evolutionary Ecology 32: 443-452.PDF.

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Villa, S. M., G. B. Goodman, J. S. Ruff and D. H. Clayton. 2016. Does allopreening control avian ectoparasites? Biology Letters 12: 20160362. PDF

Villa, S. M., H. E. Campbell, S. E. Bush and D. H. Clayton. 2016. Does anti-parasite behavior improve with experience? Experimental test of the priming hypothesis. Behavioural Ecology PDF

J.P. Owen, J. L. Waite, K. Z. Holden and D.H. Clayton. 2014. Does antibody binding to novel proteins predict future infection? (Invited article for special issue concerning immunology and ectoparasites). Parasite Immunology 36: 571-582.PDF

Ghosh, S., J.L. Waite, D. H. Clayton and F.R. Adler. 2014. Can antibodies against flies alter malaria transmission in birds by changing vector behavior? Journal of Theoretical Biology 358: 93-101.PDF

Knutie, S. A., S. M. McNew, A. W. Bartlow, D. Vargas, and D. H. Clayton. 2014. Darwin’s finches combat introduced nest parasites with fumigated cotton. Current Biology 24: R355–R356. PDF

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• Press coverage: Covered by Reuters, Science, Nature, National Public Radio, Scientific American, National Geographic, CBC Quirks & Quarks & many others. Also featured on the game show Jeopardy.

Waite, J.L., A.R. Henry, J.P. Owen and D.H. Clayton. 2014. An experimental test of the effects of behavioral and immunological defenses against vectors: do they interact to protect birds from blood parasites? Parasites & Vectors 7:104. PDF

Koop, J. A. H., J. P. Owen, S. A. Knutie, M. A. Aguilar and D. H. Clayton. 2013. Experimental demonstration of a parasite-induced immune response in wild birds: Darwin’s finches and introduced nest flies. Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1002/ece3.651 PDF

Knutie, S. A., J. A. H. Koop, S. S. French and D. H. Clayton. 2013. Experimental test of the effect of introduced hematophagous flies on the corticosterone levels of breeding Darwin’s finches. General and Comparative Endocrinology 193: 68-71. PDF

Waite, J. L., A. R. Henry and D. H. Clayton. 2012. How effective is preening for controlling mobile ectoparasites? An experimental test with pigeons and hippoboscid flies. International Journal of Parasitology 42:463-467. PDF

Koop, J. A. H., S. K. Huber and D. H. Clayton. 2012. Does sunlight enhance the effectiveness of avian preening for ectoparasite control? Journal of Parasitology 98: 46- 48. PDF

Owen, J.P., A. C. Nelson and D. H. Clayton. 2010. Ecological immunology of bird-ectoparasite systems. Trends in Parasitology 26: 530-539 (and cover). PDF

Clayton, D. H., J. A. H. Koop, C. W. Harbison, B. R. Moyer and S. E. Bush. 2010. How birds combat ectoparasites. Open Ornithology Journal 3: 41-71. (invited review for special issue: Currrent Issues in Avian Parasitology). PDF

Huber, S. K., J. P. Owen, A. H. Koop, M. O. King, P. R. Grant, B. R. Grant, and D. H. Clayton. 2010. Ecoimmunity in Darwin's finches: Invasive parasites trigger acquired immunity in the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis). PLoS One 5: e8605. PDF

Douglas III, H. D., J. R. Malenke and D. H. Clayton. 2005. Is the citrus-like plumage odorant of Crested Auklets (Aethia cristatella) a defense against lice? Journal of Ornithology 146:111-115. PDF

Clayton, D. H., B. R. Moyer, S. E. Bush, D. Gardiner, B. Rhodes, T. Jones and F. Goller. 2005. Adaptive significance of avian beak morphology for ectoparasite control. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: B 272:811-817.

• Press Coverage: New York Times.PDF

Moyer, B. R. and D. H. Clayton. 2004. Avian defenses against ectoparasites. Pp. 241-257 in H. F. van Emden and M. Rothschild (eds) Insect and Bird Interactions Intercept Ltd., Andover, U.K. 301pp. PDF

Moyer, B. R., A. N. Rock and D. H. Clayton. 2003. An experimental test of the importance of preen oil in Rock Doves (Columba livia). Auk 120: 490-496. PDF

Moyer, B. R., A. T. Peterson and D. H. Clayton. 2002. Influence of bill shape on ectoparasite load in Western Scrub-jays. Condor 104:675-678. PDF

Moyer, B. R., D. W. Gardiner and D. H. Clayton. 2002 Impact of feather molt on ectoparasites: Looks can be deceiving. Oecologia 131:203-210. PDF

• Press coverage: Science News. 2001, p 139. Oops. New feathers turn out lousy.

Cotgreave, P. and D. H. Clayton. 1994. Comparative analysis of time spent grooming by birds in relation to parasite load. Behaviour 131:171-187. PDF

Clayton, D. H. and P. Cotgreave. 1994. Relationship of bill morphology to grooming behaviour in birds. Animal Behaviour 47:195-201.PDF

• Press coverage: Anon. 1994. Long bills have their downside. Discover 15(5):18. Anon. 1997. Bird's bill of health? Nature Australia; Putnam, C. 1997. The gentle touch. BBC Wildlife 15:57.

Clayton, D. H. and N. D. Wolfe. 1993. The adaptive significance of self-medication. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8:60-63.PDF

Clayton, D. H. and J. G. Vernon. 1993. Common grackles anting with lime fruit and its effect on ectoparasites. Auk 110:951-952. PDF

• Press coverage: Furlow, B. 1/2000. Kills all known germs. New Scientist 22.

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