Cigarette butts have been observed in nests of some urban bird species. However, the reason of this behavior remains unclear.
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A new study in Biology Letters conducted in Mexico city by Constantino Macias Garcia and a team of students shows that the nicotine and other chemicals present in smoked butts reduce the number of parasites in the nests of two bird species: house sparrows and house finches.
Birds are known to respond to nest-dwelling parasites by altering behaviours. Some bird species, for example, bring fresh plants to the nest, which contain volatile compounds that repel parasites. There is evidence that some birds living in cities incorporate cigarette butts into their nests, but the effect (if any) of this behaviour remains unclear. Butts from smoked cigarettes retain substantial amounts of nicotine and other compounds that may also act as arthropod repellents. We provide the first evidence that smoked cigarette butts may function as a parasite repellent in urban bird nests. The amount of cellulose acetate from butts in nests of two widely distributed urban birds was negatively associated with the number of nest-dwelling parasites. Moreover, when parasites were attracted to heat traps containing smoked or non-smoked cigarette butts, fewer parasites reached the former, presumably due to the presence of nicotine. Because urbanization changes the abundance and type of resources upon which birds depend, including nesting materials and plants involved in self-medication, our results are consistent with the view that urbanization imposes new challenges on birds that are dealt with using adaptations evolved elsewhere.
Link to the article: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/9/1/20120931.full.pdf+html