Frequency and consequences of feather holes in Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica

Péter László Pap, Jácint Tökölyi, Tibor Szép

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The relationship between feather quality, estimated through the prevalence and intensity of feather holes, and the breeding performance and survival of the Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica was studied over a 5-year period. In addition, we present some indirect data on the role of chewing lice in producing the feather holes. The balanced distribution of feather holes (high prevalence, low aggregation) corresponds with the pattern of distribution of lice on colonial birds, and in the Barn Swallow. Feather holes were significantly and positively associated with the arrival dates of the birds, as both males and females with an increased number of feather holes started laying later. Females that survived the winter had significantly fewer holes than non-surviving females, whereas there was no difference in feather hole number between surviving and non-surviving males. Given that there was no association between the number of feather holes and body condition indices, except for the tail length of male Barn Swallows, we suggest that the negative effect of feather holes on the fitness of the birds is mainly apparent during periods of intensive locomotor activity, such as migration. Alternatively, if feather holes are an indicator of quality, those birds with a high intensity of feather holes may have been of poor quality. These birds may have been less able to cope with the environmental conditions, resulting in the lower survival and later arrival of the birds to the breeding grounds. The negative relationship between the length of the outermost tail feathers of males and the incidence of feather holes suggests that the tail is a condition-dependent secondary sexual characteristic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-175
Number of pages7
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2005


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology

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