biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow in warfare with odours featherlice aren_t very nice!

Featherlice aren’t very nice!

And especially not for a bird

As a teenager, I kept pigeons on the balcony for a while and actually breeding and ringing them, became quite knowledgeable in matters pigeons. My pigeon coop was right above the entrance of our house and for that reason, none of the residents appreciated my pets very much (there was always the risk that something unpleasant might drop on someone entering or leaving the house).

I did not care what the other people thought of my hobby and continued to breed pigeons, mostly the wild type rock pigeon, until, one day, I cleaned their pen and examined nest and chicks. The pigeon droppings weren’t so bad, but in and around the nest as well as amongst the feathers of the birds I spotted thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, of tiny creepy-crawly animals: featherlice and mites! Even now when I think of it, I feel itchy all over (now, isn’t that something for a psychologist!).

Knowing full well that none of these minute arthropods harms humans, I still could not continue with that hobby once I had seen that truly disgusting spectacle. Yet, zoologically speaking all of these avian associates are highly interesting. There are species that exclusively occur in bird nests, mites that only visit their birds occasionally to take little sips of blood and featherlice that spend generations amongst the plumage of their hosts – but not just any feathers. Some species only call the neck feathers their home, others prefer the quills of the wings or are restricted to the downs on the chest or the back. They eat bits of feather material and discarded skin cells, but rarely do the birds any serious harm – which of course would be stupid as it would destroy their source of subsistence.

So long, in evolutionary terms, has the association between featherlice with particular species of birds endured that the parasites can serve as indicators of bird relationships. Flamingos, for instance, look much more like storks, cranes or herons than ducks, but they do not support any of the featherlice typical of storks, cranes and herons. The featherlice of the flamingo, instead seem closely related to species that occur exclusively on ducks. So conservative are featherlice species that the domestic chicken, with centuries of opportunities to freely mix and associate in the barnyard with ducks, geese, turkeys, pigeons and sparrows still carries in its plumage a featherlouse termed Goniodes dissimilis whose closest relative is known from the Indian Bankiva fowl (Gallus gallus bankiva), a species considered to be the ancestor of the domestic chicken Gallus gallus domesticus.

Even the cuckoo, a bird that has been laying its eggs into the nests of other birds for thousands and thousands of generations, never acquires any of the featherlice that are characteristic of its host parents. The cuckoo has its own genera of “cuckoo featherlice”, namely Cuculiphilus, Cuculicola, and Cuculoecus, but the young cuckoo bird stays clean until it begins to associate with other cuckoos through mating. Only then does it get contaminated and catch the species-specific “bugs”. Which tells us that even in cuckoos sexual pleasures have their risks.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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