Background: Complex communities of bacteria inhabit the feathers of all birds. Under normal conditions, individuals maintain a healthy state by defending themselves against these potential invaders by preening. The immune system is only triggered when bacteria gain access into the body. Preening is, however, costly and may trade-off with investment in the immune system. To shed light on how birds balance the trade-off between immunity and preen secretions when facing high or low feather bacterial load, we experimentally manipulated feather bacteria load of feral pigeons (Columba livia), and investigated the effects on immune defenses. Results: Birds facing high feather bacterial load had lower immune response to PHA skin-swelling test (a measure of induced pro-inflammatory capacity) than controls, while birds facing low feather bacterial load had higher blood bacterial killing ability (a measure of the capacity to eliminate bacterial pathogens) than controls. No other components of the immune system (i.e., hemagglutination and hemolysis capacity of plasma, primary and secondary responses to KLH and quantity of blood parasites) were found to be affected by feather bacterial load. Conclusion: Pigeons had previously been shown to adjust preening to feather bacterial load. The decrease in the energetically costly inflammatory response of birds experiencing high bacterial load suggests a trade-off between investment in preen secretion and immunity and reinforces the idea that feather microbiota may have a strong impact on the ecology and evolution of the avian host.
Leclaire, S., Czirják, G. Á., Hammouda, A., & Gasparini, J. (2015). Feather bacterial load shapes the trade-off between preening and immunity in pigeons: Evolutionary ecology and behaviour. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12862-015-0338-9