Supplementary feeding and endoparasites in threatened avian scavengers: Coprologic evidence from red kites in their wintering stronghold

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Many obligate and facultative avian scavengers are increasingly dependent on food provided in supplementary feeding stations (SFS), which are managed for the conservation of these species. Deliberate feeding can influence disease-related host demography and population dynamics through physiological changes and density-dependent parasite acquisition and transmission, but information on this threat to avian scavengers is scarce. Due to their effects on host aggregation and density, we hypothesised that the predictability and concentration of food in SFS can exacerbate parasite infection. This hypothesis was tested by comparing the prevalence, richness, abundance and mixed infection of endoparasites (coccidia and helminths) in red kites Milvus milvus foraging on livestock carcasses (mostly of pigs and poultry) in overcrowded and confined conditions at SFS, relative to those foraging alone or in small groups on wild prey unevenly randomly distributed within large areas during winter, mostly wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). No clear differences were found between areas with and without SFS in the prevalence and abundance of oocyst of Eimeria. This coccidian genus appears to include parasites of the prey rather than the raptors, thus representing parasite transport or pseudo-parasitism rather than actual parasitism in the kites. A higher prevalence and richness of helminths, as well as mixed infections with several phyla, was found in kites exploiting SFS than in those feeding on wild prey in the area without SFS. The unsanitary conditions derived from the stack of livestock carcasses and the contamination of carrion with the faeces of multiple scavenger hosts can increase the accumulation and persistence of helminths eggs and intermediate hosts. The regular use and frequent confinement of large numbers of red kites at SFS can promote the spread of parasites to a large proportion of the European breeding population distributed across Spain during the winter. We encourage that carcasses of free roaming livestock can be left in the countryside, as well as the conservation management of wildlife exploited as food by red kites (especially wild rabbits), to attempt avoiding overcrowded and confined conditions at SFS. Further research is required to assess the impact of deliberate feeding on the spread of parasites and other disease agents in the threatened species SFS are intended to favour.

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