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Anim Behav. 2000 Feb;59(2):301-309.

Green plants in starling nests: effects on nestlings.

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Research Unit for Ornithology of the Max-Planck-Society


European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, intermingle fresh herbs, especially species rich in volatile compounds, with their otherwise dry nest material. In this field study we investigated whether these herbs reduce ectoparasites and thereby protect nestlings (the nest protection hypothesis). We also considered whether volatile compounds in herbs improve the condition of nestlings (the drug hypothesis). As measures of condition we used body mass, haematocrit levels and immunological parameters. We replaced 148 natural starling nests with artificial ones: half contained herbs and half (controls) contained grass. The ectoparasite loads (mites, lice, fleas) in herb and control nests were indistinguishable. However, nestlings in herb nests weighed more and had higher haematocrit levels at fledging than nestlings in control nests. Fledging success was similar in herb and control nests, but more yearlings from herb nests were identified in the colony the year after hatching. The response of the immune system when challenged with phytohaemagglutinin did not differ in nestlings from herb and control nests. Nestlings from herb nests had more basophils and fewer lymphocytes in their blood than those from control nests, while the eosinophil and heterophil counts did not differ. We conclude that herbs do not reduce the number of ectoparasites, but they improve the condition of nestlings, perhaps by stimulating elements of the immune system that help them to cope better with the harmful activities of ectoparasites. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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