Grooming by birds is thought to serve essential anti-parasite functions. While preening has been well studied, little is known about the function of scratching in birds. We conducted a series of experiments to determine the effectiveness of scratching for controlling feather lice (Columbicola columbae) on Rock Pigeons (Columba livia). First, we used a hobbling technique to impair scratching. After 6 mo, hobbled birds had significantly more lice than controls that could scratch. In addition, lice on hobbled birds were concentrated on the birds' heads and necks (i.e. the regions that birds scratch). Secondly, we tested the role the claw plays in scratching by declawing nestlings. Once mature, declawed pigeons had significantly more lice than control birds with claws. Moreover, lice on declawed birds were concentrated on the head and neck. Next, we tested whether the flange found on the middle claw of many bird species enhances scratching. We experimentally manipulated the flange; however, the number and location of lice on birds without flanges was not significantly different than that on control birds with intact flanges. Finally, we tested whether scratching removes parasites directly or indirectly by “flushing” them onto body regions where they can be preened. When we impaired scratching (with hobbles) and preening (with “bits”) we found that scratching no longer reduced the number of lice on birds. Our results indicated that scratching and preening work synergistically; scratching reduces parasite load by flushing lice onto regions of the body where they can be eliminated by preening.
Vol. 137 • No. 2
Vol. 137 • No. 2