Partial incubation during egg laying reduces eggshell microbial loads in a temperate-breeding passerine

Bollinger, Patricia; Bollinger, Eric K.; Daniel, Steven; Gonser, Rusty; Tuttle, Elaina

10 March 2018

Incubation prior to clutch completion may be adaptive if it maintains egg viability by inhibiting eggshell microbial growth, thus reducing the likelihood that the embryo becomes infected. To test this hypothesis, we examined the effect of partial incubation during egg laying on eggshell microbial loads in eastern bluebirds Sialia sialis breeding at a temperate-zone site. We sampled eggshell microbes prior to and following four days of exposure to either natural levels of incubation during the laying period or ambient conditions without incubation (experimental eggs). Microbial colony counts declined significantly for eggs left in the nest during the laying period, but did not vary significantly for eggs exposed to ambient conditions. Initial microbial loads were more similar to those previously reported from tropical than temperate environments, and microbes from potentially pathogenic groups were detected on 88% of first-laid eggs on the day of laying. Egg viability was maintained when eggs were held for four days without incubation but declined sharply thereafter. Our results suggest that partial incubation during egg laying may enhance egg viability in eastern bluebirds by reducing eggshell microbial loads; these effects appear stronger than those usually reported from the temperate zone.