Ornis Hungarica. vol.20(1). (2012) p.37-43.
Relationship between sexual signals and louse (Insecta: Phthiraptera) infestation of breeding and migrating Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in Hungary
Lice (Phthiraptera) chew characteristic holes on the remiges and rectrices of Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica). The number of these holes correlate positively with the intensity of louse infestation, hence hole counts are useful to quantify lousiness. Several papers showed that lice affect both life expectancy and reproductive success of hosts. In male Barn swallows, the length of the outermost tail feathers act as a sexual signal. Females prefer long-tailed males, which have significantly fewer feather holes. In this study we sampled breeding and migrating Barn swallows and compared their louse burden, and the relationship between tail length and the number of feather holes. We found significant negative correlation between feather holes and tail length in breeding males; however, we found non-significant correlation in migrating males. We suggest that attractive males have more physical interactions (e.g. extra-pair copulation) during the breeding season, than less attractive males, hence they are more exposed to louse transmission, and therefore the difference in the infestation declines towards the end of the breeding season. However, given that migrating swallow groups include colonial and solitary breeding birds, it cannot be excluded that a potentially different louse distribution on solitary breeding birds may contribute to the results.