The wide-ranging swamp sparrow occurs across North America, from Alaska to Labrador and south to the Gulf Coast.
The swamp sparrow's plumage does not vary much across its vast range, except for a tiny pocket of birds that breed in salt marshes in Delaware and winter in coastal North Carolina.
These birds have a predominantly gray and black plumage, while their inland cousins tend to be more buff and rust. The reason for the difference in plumage has so far been unknown but recent studies suggest that bacteria may play a role.
Scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Ohio Wesleyan University collaborated on a study to compare the feather-eating bacteria, Bacillus licheniformis, on the 2 types of swamp sparrows. One set of samples came from freshwater cranberry bogs in the mountains of Maryland while the others came from the coastal marshes of Delaware.
Only 40% of inland birds had feather-degrading bacteria on their feathers while 82% of salt marsh birds did. In addition, the bacteria were far more numerous on the salt marsh birds.
Feather-degrading bacteria do quite well in the hot and salty environment of a coastal marsh. It turns out that the pigment melanin, which causes black or gray colors, provides some protection against the ravages of these bacteria.
It may be that coastal plain swamp sparrows have evolved a darker plumage as a protection from quill quelling microbes.
This article summarizes the information in this publication:
Dark Color of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza Georgiana nigrescens) may be an Evolutionary Response to Occurrence and Abundance of Salt-Tolerant Feather-Degrading Bacilli in its Plumage. 2009. Peele, Ashley M., Burtt, Edward H., Schroeder, Max R., and Greenberg, Russell S. 2009. The Auk, 126(3): 531-535.
The Southern Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana georgiana) breeds in northeastern North America in montane, freshwater marshes and fens. Its close relative, the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow (M. g. nigrescens), breeds in northeastern North America, but in coastal salt marshes. Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrows are darker than Southern Swamp Sparrows. Darkly colored feathers are more resistant to bacterial degradation by bacilli, which are unusually salt-tolerant. We tested whether the difference in feather color of the pale montane Southern Swamp Sparrow and the dark Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow could be an adaptive response to differences in the occurrence and activity of bacilli in habitats that differ in salinity. Southern Swamp Sparrows were caught and sampled in cranberry fens in western Maryland, whereas Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrows were sampled in salt marshes on the western shore of the Delaware River, just where it broadens into Delaware Bay. The number of birds with feather-degrading bacteria in their plumage was significantly greater among Swamp Sparrows in salt marshes than among those in freshwater fens. The number of colonies of feather-degrading bacilli per bird was also higher for salt-marsh Swamp Sparrows than for those from freshwater fens. We conclude that the dark plumage of Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrows evolved to resist feather-degradation by salt-tolerant bacilli that occur more frequently and abundantly in their plumage than in the pale plumage of the Southern Swamp Sparrow.
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