Nestling Immunocompetence is Affected by Captivity but Not Investigator Handling

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Environmental conditions during the neonatal period can affect the growth, physiology, behavior, and immune function of birds. In many avian studies the nestling environment includes investigator handling of young, which may be stressful. While neonatal handling is known to affect the adult phenotype in rats, the effects of handling on development have rarely been examined in wild birds. We examined the effect of short, repeated periods of neonatal handling on avian growth and immune system development. We subjected American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to 15 min of daily investigator handling throughout the nestling period, while controls remained undisturbed. Immediately prior to fledging we assessed cutaneous immunity, humoral immunity, mass, and degree of fluctuating asymmetry. Daily handling did not significantly affect any of these measurements. We also addressed the possibility that treatment differences would appear only when birds were challenged with a more substantial stressor by bringing birds into captivity for 24 hr. Captivity did not affect mass, but significantly lowered the cutaneous immune response, although this was independent of treatment. Therefore, brief periods of investigator handling did not appear to affect immune or morphological development in these species, whereas 24 hr of captivity resulted in suppressed cutaneous immune responses.