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European starlings: nestling condition, parasites and green nest material during the breeding season

Kondition der Nestlinge, Parasiten und grünes Nestmaterial im Laufe der Brutsaison von Europäischen Staren

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Male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) intermingle fresh herbs, preferably species rich in volatile compounds, into their dry nest material. In a field study, we investigated whether these herbs affect the mite and bacteria load of the nests and the condition of the nestlings either directly or via parasite control. We examined the amount of herbs and the number of plant species males carried into their nests, the variation of volatile compounds in the headspace air of the nest boxes and mite/bacteria load of the nests throughout the season. The amount of herb material and the number of plant species, the number of substances emanated by these plants and the infestation of the nests with bacteria and mites (Dermanyssus gallinae) increased with season. In a field experiment, we exchanged natural starling nests with experimental nests with or without herbs. We found that the herbs had no effect on the mites but fewer bacteria were sampled in nests with herbs than in nests without herbs. The body mass of the fledging was not related to the season or the mite/bacteria load of the nests. However, nestlings from nests with herbs fledged with higher body mass than nestlings from nests without herbs. Both bacteria and mite load were related to nestling mortality. In nests containing no herbs, the numbers of fledglings declined significantly with the increasing mite load while the mites had no effect on the number of fledglings in nests with herbs. Thus, the nest herbs counteracted the effect of the mites. In conclusion, it seems that volatile herbs can reduce bacterial but not mite infestation of the starling nests. The positive influence of herbs on nestling growth indicates that herbs either directly (perhaps as immunostimulants) improve the condition of the nestlings and help them cope with the harmful effects of mites, or they provide a nest environment beneficial for the nestlings‘ development by the reduction of germs.

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Ebo Gwinner contributed in many ways to this study: he assisted in the field, initiated co-operations and guided us through the years of the investigation with many suggestions and enthusiasm. Discussions and questions were possible at all times.

B. Krock, Jena, analysed the head space air samples. W. Jensen, E. Koch and S. Gwinner, developed the air sampling method ingeniously. M. Suchomel gave bacteriological and B. Helm statistical advice. L. Trost performed a great deal of field work. F. Bairlein gave fruitful comments. We are very grateful to all of them.

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Correspondence to Helga Gwinner.

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Communicated by F. Bairlein

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Gwinner, H., Berger, S. European starlings: nestling condition, parasites and green nest material during the breeding season. J Ornithol 146, 365–371 (2005).

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