We studied the within-brood distribution of a haematophagous mite Pellonyssus reedi living on nestling house sparrows (Passer domesticus) near the time of fledging. We measured the natural level of infestation of individual nestlings, and determined the feeding efficiency of mites, by scoring their feeding status. Within-brood distribution of mite loads was unrelated to nestling body mass, tarsus length, or immunocompetence. These results did not support parasite preference for large or susceptible hosts. Mite feeding-efficiency was also unrelated to these nestling characteristics, confirming that large nestlings or nestlings with less-developed immunocompetence did not provide superior feeding conditions for mites. Therefore, our results do not support the hypothesis that within-brood distribution of avian ectoparasites is explained by the parasites' preferences for characteristics, such as large body size or low immunocompetence, that make nestlings suitable hosts. On the other hand, we found that mite loads were negatively correlated with nestling age and feather length, suggesting that nestlings closer to fledging harbored fewer mites then their less-developed nestmates. Furthermore, feather length had a stronger relationship with parasite distribution than did nestling age. We presume, therefore, that feather characteristics, i.e., length, may serve as a signal for mites to perceive the ready-to-fledge state of nestlings, inducing abandonment behavior. These results support another, largely neglected hypothesis, i.e., that the avoidance or abandonment of those nestlings that are close to fledging may also explain the parasites' distribution in a brood. This hypothesis is based on the argument that many nest-dwelling ectoparasites breed in the nest material and emerge only periodically to feed on nestlings. In such parasites, the ability to recognize and avoid mature fledglings can be adaptive because this may help the parasites to avoid their removal from the nest so they can continue to reproduce by feeding on unfledged chicks of the current or later broods. Our results suggest that adaptive host-abandonment by nest-dwelling ectoparasites can influence within-brood parasite distributions around the time of fledging.
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