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Behav Processes. 2012 Jun;90(2):246-53. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2012.02.003. Epub 2012 Feb 25.

Interacting effects of aromatic plants and female age on nest-dwelling ectoparasites and blood-sucking flies in avian nests.

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Departamento de Ecología Evolutiva, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, J. Gutiérrez Abascal 2, Madrid, Spain.


Some avian species incorporate aromatic plants to their nests. The "nest protection hypothesis", which posits that volatile secondary compounds contained in these plants may have antiparasite properties, has not received full support. All previous tests of this hypothesis have only considered effects on nest-dwelling ectoparasites, but not on blood-sucking flies. The "drug hypothesis" posits that aromatic plants may stimulate nestling immune system, development, or condition. We tested these hypotheses experimentally in wild blue tits, Cyanistes caeruleus, a species that adds aromatic plants to their nests. We supplemented aromatic plants to half of a sample of nests, while adding grass to the other half of nests. We quantified abundance of two groups of blood-sucking flies (blackflies and biting midges) at two different stages of the reproductive period, and abundance of three nest-dwelling ectoparasites (fleas, mites, and blowflies). Experimental supplementation of aromatic plants reduced abundance of fleas only in nests of yearling females and not in nests of older females. Blackflies and biting midges were both more numerous in nests of yearling females than in nests of older females. Mass of aromatic plants added by females was negatively related with abundance of fleas in control nests but not in experimental nests supplied with aromatic plants. Mass of plants added by females was also positively related with abundance of blackflies during the nestling stage. Finally, aromatic plants did not affect nestling growth or immune responses. We conclude that several factors such as female experience and their ability to add plants to the nest interact to explain effects of aromatic plants on different parasites.

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