Feather mites are obligatory ectosymbionts of birds that primarily feed on the oily secretions from the uropygial gland. Feather mite abundance varies within and among host species and has various effects on host condition and fitness, but there is little consensus on factors that drive variation of this symbiotic system. We tested hypotheses regarding how within-species and among-species traits explain variation in both (1) mite abundance and (2) relationships between mite abundance and host body condition and components of host fitness (reproductive performance and apparent annual survival). We focused on two closely related (Parulidae), but ecologically distinct, species: Setophaga cerulea (Cerulean Warbler), a canopy dwelling open-cup nester, and Protonotaria citrea (Prothonotary Warbler), an understory dwelling, cavity nester. We predicted that feather mites would be more abundant on and have a more parasitic relationship with P. citrea, and within P. citrea, females and older individuals would harbor greater mite abundances. We captured, took body measurements, quantified feather mite abundance on individuals' primaries and rectrices, and monitored individuals and their nests to estimate fitness. Feather mite abundance differed by species, but in the opposite direction of our prediction. There was no relationship between mite abundance and any measure of body condition or fitness for either species or sex (also contrary to our predictions). Our results suggest that species biology and ecological context may influence mite abundance on hosts. However, this pattern does not extend to differential effects of mites on measures of host body condition or fitness.


This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. © 2017 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Date of publication

Spring 12-20-2017



Persistent identifier


Document Type


Included in

Biology Commons