Trichomoniasis, caused by the protozoan Trichomonas gallinae, affects a variety of species worldwide including avivorious raptors. Existing information suggests that the disease is most prevalent in young birds, and differential susceptibility to trichomoniasis among individuals in different age groups was documented in Cooper's Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) nesting in Tucson, Arizona. In that population, 85% of nestling Cooper's Hawks had T. gallinae in their oral cavity, compared to only 1% of breeding-age hawks. Trichomonads generally are sensitive to environmental pH and we explored the possibility that differences in oral pH may contribute to the differential prevalence of infection between age groups. We measured the pH of the fluid in the oral cavity in 375 Cooper's Hawks from three age groups (nestlings, fledglings, and breeding age) in Tucson, Arizona, in 2010 and 2011 and clinically tested for T. gallinae in a subsample of hawks. Oral pH of nestlings (∼6.8) was 7.3 times less acidic than in fledgling or breeding Cooper's Hawks (∼6.1). The incidence of T. gallinae was higher in nestlings (16%) than in either fledglings or breeding hawks (0%). Our findings indicate that oral pH becomes more acidic in Cooper's Hawks soon after they leave the nest. Trichomonas gallinae thrives when pH is between 6.5 and 7.5 (optimum 7.2), but is less viable in more acidic conditions. Higher levels of acidity in the oral cavity of fledglings and breeding Cooper's Hawks may reduce their susceptibility to trichomoniasis, and play a role in the differential prevalence of infection among age groups.
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Vol. 50 • No. 1