Seasonality in the uropygial gland size and feather mite abundance in house sparrows Passer domesticus: Natural covariation and an experiment

Péter L. Pap, Csongor I. Vágási, Gergely Osváth, Cosmin Mureşan, Zoltán Barta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

33 Citations (Scopus)


The seasonal change, i.e. the marked differences between seasons of low and high productivity, in the abundance of ectosymbionts and the defence intensity of the host against pathogens is a well defined characteristic of temperate zone organisms. Here we investigate the seasonal variation in the uropygial gland size and the abundance of Proctophyllodes feather mites on the wing feathers of house sparrows Passer domesticus in two breeding populations. The size of the uropygial gland varied significantly in male and female house sparrows over the annual cycle. The gland was small during the non-breeding and mating season, after that it started to grow sharply, reaching its maximum size during breeding. Females had larger gland volumes than males during breeding, and the increase in gland size during breeding was more pronounced in females than in males. The number of feather mites was the lowest during breeding, followed by an increase during moult, and reaching its maximum between the wintering and mating seasons. The absence of a significant relationship between the uropygial gland size and the abundance of feather mites, after controlling for potential confounding variables, supports the view that gland oils do not regulate the number of mites. To investigate further this hypothesis, through a full factorial experimental design we tested the effect of uropygial gland and photoperiod manipulation on the population size and population dynamics of feather mites. The manipulation of uropygial gland had no effect on mites, supporting our observational results. As a result of the experimentally increased day-length, the abundance of feather mites on wing feathers decreased significantly and more sharply than in the control group, supporting the previous anecdotal evidence about the photosensitivity of these organisms. Using photoperiodic cues, feather mites may respond to seasonal changes that affect their life-history and population dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)653-661
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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