Microbial Communities on American Redstarts

January 1, 2009 by Gregory Gough

bird feather with microbes

We all know that feathers are unique features to birds. Frequently overlooked is the fact that feathers also harbor a diverse micro-flora and fauna.

A single bird may carry organisms that range in size from larger ectoparasites such as feather lice (Phthiraptera: Ischnocera) to smaller microscopic organisms such as feather-degrading bacteria (e.g. Bacillus licheniformis) and fungi (e.g. Arthroderma spp.).

The Migratory Bird Center conducted a collaborative research project with Dr. Patrick Gillevet at George Mason University and Dr. Edward Burtt, Jr. at Ohio Wesleyan University which involved a broad survey of feather-degrading bacteria and fungi across and within species of the Neotropics.

American redstart, focal study bird

A focal study species was the migratory American redstart. Resident birds on the redstart's breeding grounds (Maryland) and those on its wintering grounds (Jamaica) had different microbial communities than the redstart. In addition, the microbial community on the redstart was different in the fall, breeding season, and wintering season.

With the potential for migratory birds to spread microbes across diverse areas it is important to understand the microbe/migratory bird interaction.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Bisson, I., Marra, P.P., Burtt Jr, E., Sikaroodi, M. and Gillevet, P. 2009. Variation in plumage microbiota depends on season and migration. Microbial Ecology, 58: 212-220.

Download scientific paper