Parasite epidemiology in wild bird populations

This project aims to improve our understanding of the relationships between a range of wild bird species and the parasites they come into contact with in their natural habitats.

Parasites in birds are remarkably diverse. We know from previous research that the strains of parasites causing infections can vary between species, between different populations of the same species and through time. Parasite infection can impact host health, and can be potentially fatal, although we don’t yet understand what causes outbreaks of mortality from parasites such as Trichomonas gallinae.

This work will help us understanding how both infection risk and the impact of infection upon individual birds change through time and across space, as well as in response to changes in the environment. These will have practical implications for management of the health of wildlife populations, and for bird conservation.

This work involves the capture of a range of wild bird species and the collection of samples allowing the diagnosis of parasite infections. After being handled briefly, we will release all birds back into the wild.

These data allow us to examine how host-parasite associations vary through time and space, allowing us to address a range of questions related to the causes and consequences of parasite infection for bird hosts.


We hope to understand the dynamics of parasite infection in natural populations, so cannot carry out this work in non-animal systems, lab-based systems, or using computer simulations. Parasite infection may vary across space and time, and between species, so we need to collect samples from a relatively large number of individuals in order to have confidence in our data. 


We will reduce sample sizes using statistical models to control for multiple sources of variation. However, the protocols we use are classified as mild, causing only temporary discomfort. We will use species of wild bird where we know that parasites are present in a large enough proportion of individuals to allow us to achieve our objectives. 


Wild birds will be captured and handled only by licenced bird ringers. They will be fitted with an individually numbered ring, have standard measurements taken, and then assessed for health status. If considered to be physically healthy, they will have a small blood sample taken. They may also have a swab taken from their oral cavity. These samples allow us to detect blood parasites and Trichomonas parasites. These protocols are well-established and known to cause minimal harm. All individuals are expected to be released back into the wild shortly after samples have been collected.

Non-technical summary

Read parasite epidemiology in wild bird populations non-technical summary (PDF).

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