Copulation exposes female Red-winged Blackbirds to bacteria in male semen

David F. Westneat, T. Birch Rambo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


One often cited but poorly studied cost of multiple mating by female birds is the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted pathogens. We examined the ejaculates of male Red-winged Blackbirds Agelaius phoeniceus to determine if exposure to bacteria from males was a potential consequence of copulation for females. Ejaculates were collected in the field using a model female fitted with a sterile artificial cloaca. We found that 11 of 18 sampled males left ejaculates containing bacteria (compared to 3 of 18 control swabs of a sterile cloaca similarly exposed to the environment). We could identify to species or genus 13 of 26 isolates of bacteria from ejaculates, and found that each male left a unique combination of types. Only three types were found in more than one male (one additional male in each case). We found no qualitative effects of bacterial contamination on male fertility or female reproductive success, but larger sample sizes would be needed for a quantitative analysis. Little information is available on how the strains we identified might affect birds, but several types have known debilitating effects in humans or domesticated mammals. Two bacterial types isolated from blackbird semen are reported to produce chitinase, an enzyme with possibly beneficial consequences if produced by bacteria entering the gut of an insect-eating bird. These results suggest that exposure to new bacterial types is a consequence of extra-pair copulations to females. This exposure could have beneficial and/or detrimental effects on female fitness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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