Experimentally broken faecal sacs affect nest bacterial environment, development and survival of spotless starling nestlings

Azcárate-García, Manuel; Ruiz-Rodríguez, Magdalena; DÍAZ LORA, SILVIA; Ruiz-Castellano, Cristina; Soler, Juan

29 January 2019

Nestlings of most avian species produce faecal sacs, which facilitate the removal of nestlings’ excrements by parents, thereby reducing proliferation of potentially pathogenic microorganisms and/or detectability by predators and parasites. The nest microbial environment that birds experience during early life might also affect their development and thus, faecal sacs facilitating parental removal may be a strategy to decrease bacterial contamination of nests that could harm developing nestlings. Here, we tested this hypothesis by experimentally broken faecal sacs and spreading them in nests of spotless starlings (Sturnus unicolor), thereby avoiding their removal by adults. In accordance with the hypothesis, experimental nests harboured higher bacterial density than control nests. Nestlings in experimental nests were of smaller size (tarsus length) and experienced lower probability of survival (predation) than those in control nests. Moreover, nestlings in experimental nests tended to suffer more from ectoparasites than those in control nests. We discuss the possible pivotal role of bacteria producing chemical volatiles that ectoparasites and predators might use to find avian nests, and that could explain our experimental results in starlings.