Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Brown CR, Brown MB. 2015 Ectoparasitism shortens the breeding season in a colonial bird. Royal Society open science 2: 140508.


Copyright (c) 2015 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.


When blood-feeding parasites increase seasonally, their deleterious effects may prevent some host species, especially those living in large groups where parasites are numerous, from reproducing later in the summer. Yet the role of parasites in regulating the length of a host’s breeding season—and thus the host’s opportunity for multiple brooding—has not been systematically investigated. The highly colonial cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), a temperate-latitude migratory songbird in the western Great Plains, USA, typically has a relatively short (eight to nine week) breeding season, with birds rarely nesting late in the summer. Colonies at which ectoparasitic swallow bugs (Oeciacus vicarius) were experimentally removed by fumigation were over 45 times more likely to have birds undertake a second round of nesting than were colonies exposed to parasites. Late nesting approximately doubled the length of the breeding season, with some birds raising two broods. Over a 27 year period the percentage of birds engaging in late nesting each year increased at a colony site where parasites were removed annually. This trend could not be explained by changes in group size, climate or nesting phenology during the study. The results suggest that ectoparasitism shortens the cliff swallow’s breeding season and probably prevents many individuals from multiple brooding. When this constraint is removed, selection may rapidly favour late nesting.