The origin of feather holes: a word of caution

Csongor I. Vágási

Published online: 
10 April 2014

Antagonistic processes between parasites and their hosts are hallmarks of evolutionary ecology. A group of parasites is adapted to feed on feather keratin. In doing so, they inflict a variety of costs on avian hosts by causing feathers to degrade faster. Feather holes represent a class of feather damage that is attributed to the chewing bites of Phthirapteran lice. Consequently, hole counts were used as an approximation of lice infestation intensity when studying bird–lice interaction. Here, I express some reservations regarding this practice. I survey the literature concerning feather holes and the state of the hole–lice concept, highlight some uncertainties regarding its reliability, offer possible alternative explanations for the origin of holes, and suggest directions for future investigations. I conclude that the origin of holes is still unknown, and so a prudent approach is desirable when interpreting the relationship between avian phenotype or fitness and lice infestation inferred from hole counts.