These are the opening words of the poem ‘To a mouse’, written by the legendary haggis-eating Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1785 (which also contains the famous line oft-paraphrased as ‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men go often askew’). Although this is an apt description of mice it is also used to refer to all manner of small, obscure and reclusive animals and feather mites fit perfectly into this category.
Most people have never heard of feather mites which is hardly surprising. They are tiny brown arthropods which spend most of their lives flattened along the vanes of bird wing feathers where they were assumed to scavenge on feather debris and oily secretions and perhaps even rasp away at the feathers themselves. However, a remarkable study published last summer (Doña et al. 2018) examined the contents of mites’ stomachs using high-power microscopy and DNA analysis and found that their main food was fungi, and perhaps also bacteria and oil produced from the birds’ preen gland. Whether this means feather mites harm their hosts or are simply commensal remains to be seen.
Birds are assumed to acquire feather mites through physical contact with their parents while they are still in the nest, although they could also pick up mites from bumping into other birds at feeders or sharing the same dust bathing sites. Mites are quite easy to see if you are holding open a bird’s wing although with the naked eye they just look like a cluster of small dots (shown below).
We gained a whole new appreciation for these creatures when Shannon Modla of the University of Delaware kindly photographed some Gray Catbird feather mites under a light microscope. The magnified views show that they are long and thin with two pairs of legs at the front of their body and two pairs at the back (image below). The darker mites on the left and below are probably older mites with a hardened exoskeleton while the paler one on the right is probably a younger mite that has just molted.
Shannon was then able to view them under a powerful electron microscope and got some incredible images of their head as well as an egg (below).
To try to gain some insights into the biology of these enigmatic creatures we have been scoring the number of feather mites present on birds handled during the Delaware Nature Society’s Bird Banding project. Our simple questions were which bird species are most likely to have mites and whether the number of birds with mites varies according to the time of year.
Our first finding was that feather mites are quite common. We examined 448 birds belonging to 48 species and found that almost half of them (203 birds from 37 species) had mites on at least one of their wing feathers. We also found the proportion of birds with mites varies a lot between species. Over 75% of the Slate-colored Juncos, House Finches and Downy Woodpeckers that we examined had feather mites yet fewer than 15% of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Common Yellowthroats or House Wrens had them. We also found that the proportion of birds with mites stayed quite consistent across the year with a noticeable peak in May.
This year we will be gathering more data on mites from the birds we band and then try to figure out why some birds are more likely to have mites than others, and why some have lots of mites while others have very few. Is it related to their body size perhaps, or how social they are, or maybe whether their beak is small and pointed enough to preen away the mites? So watch this space for updates on this new and fascinating DNS research project!
DNS has plenty of birding opportunities coming up soon, so sign up and enjoy the outdoors!