During the course of a plague epizootic, decimation of rodent host populations may result in the transfer of fleas to alternate or phoretic hosts, including to sympatric raptors that prey on rodents. We studied flea abundance and flea species assemblages on burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) in southwestern Idaho before (2012 – 2014), during (2015 – 2016), and after (2017) an epizootic of plague in Piute ground squirrels (Urocitellis mollis). We examined (1) if a larger proportion of burrowing owl nests contained fleas, (2) the likelihood that owls within a high flea abundance class increased, and (3) if owls harbored ground squirrel fleas during the epizootic. Using a flea abundance index assigned to 1,184 owls from 236 nests, the proportion of nests and the likelihood that owls had high flea abundance decreased rather than increased during epizootic years. Moreover, of 3,538 collected fleas from owls at 143 nests, no fleas were species that Piute ground squirrels typically harbor. Instead, Pulex irritans was the predominant flea collected in all study years (> 99%). Thus, although raptors may play a role in plague, there was no evidence that the die-off of ground squirrels resulted in higher flea intensity in burrowing owls or that they served as frequent accidental or phoretic hosts for ground squirrel fleas that could potentially be infectious with Yersinia pestis.
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Vol. 46 • No. 1