In July 2014, we observed premature feather loss (PFL) among non-sibling, common tern Sterna hirundo chicks between two and four weeks of age at Gull Island in northern Lake Ontario, Canada. Rarely observed in wild birds, to our knowledge PFL has not been recorded in terns since 1974, despite the subsequent banding of hundreds of thousands of tern chicks across North America alone. The prevalence, 5% of chicks (9/167), and extent of feather loss we report is more extreme than in previous reports for common terns but was not accompanied by other aberrant developmental or physical deformities. Complete feather loss from all body areas (wing, tail, head and body) occurred over a period of a few days but all affected chicks appeared vigorous and quickly began to grow replacement feathers. All but one chick (recovered dead and submitted for post-mortem) most likely fledged 10-20 days after normal fledging age. We found no evidence of feather dystrophy or concurrent developmental abnormalities unusual among affected chicks. Thus, the PFL we observed among common terns in 2014 was largely of unknown origin. There was striking temporal association between the onset of PFL and persistent strong southwesterly winds that caused extensive mixing of near-shore surface water with cool, deep lake waters. One hypothesis is that PFL may have been caused by unidentified pathogens or toxins welling up from these deep waters along the shoreline but current data are insufficient to test this. PFL was not observed among common terns at Gull Island in 2015, although we did observe similar feather loss in a herring gull Larus argentatus chick in that year. Comparison with sporadic records of PFL in other seabirds suggests that PFL may be a rare, but non-specific, response to a range of potential stressors. PFL is now known for gulls, penguins and terns.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)