Date of this Version
Animal Behaviour 71:1 (January 2006), pp. 39–48.
Animals often cope with adverse events by releasing glucocorticoid hormones, which in turn promote increased energy assimilation. In captive animals, crowding also leads to increased glucocorticoid activity, probably because of increased levels of social competition. We investigated how group size and ectoparasite infestations affected endogenous levels of the glucocorticoid hormone, corticosterone, in colonial cliff swallows, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, in southwestern Nebraska, USA. Parasites were removed from some colonies by fumigating nests. Baseline levels of corticosterone in breeding adults varied significantly with whether parasites were present, colony size (measured by total number of active nests at a site), and nesting stage. Across all analyses, birds from fumigated colonies averaged significantly lower baseline levels of corticosterone. These levels in adults increased with colony size at nonfumigated sites, especially during the period when nestlings were being fed, but no relation or the opposite one was found for birds in fumigated colonies. Baseline corticosterone levels were unrelated to sex, age, body weight, or testosterone levels in adults. Corticosterone concentrations tended to increase during a bad-weather event when food was scarce. Patterns in nestling and recently fledged juveniles were consistent with those in adults. The increased baseline levels of corticosterone in birds of larger colonies appear related to the larger number of parasites there. Higher levels of corticosterone probably facilitate increased allocation of time and energy to foraging and greater energy assimilation during challenging events such as bad weather, parasitism by blood-feeding bugs in large colonies, and the period when young are becoming independent of their parents.