Infections can have far-reaching sublethal effects on wildlife, including reduced maintenance of external structures. For many wildlife taxa, daily maintenance of external structures (termed preening in birds) is critical to fitness, but few studies have examined how infections alter such maintenance. Mycoplasma gallisepticum is a common pathogen in free-living House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), where it causes mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Despite documented behavioral changes associated with M. gallisepticum infections in finches, no studies have examined how preening behavior may change with infection and how potential differences in preening may affect feather quality. To test this, we experimentally inoculated captive House Finches with M. gallisepticum or a control treatment, and we collected behavioral and feather quality data to detect potential changes in feather maintenance due to infection. We found that finches infected with M. gallisepticum preened significantly less often, and within the infected treatment, birds with the highest conjunctivitis severity preened the least often. However, there was no difference in the quality scores for secondary flight feathers collected from control versus infected birds. We also assayed feather water retention and found that the degree of water retention correlated with our feather quality scores, such that feathers with poor scores retained more water. However, as with quality scores, feather water retention did not differ with infection; this may be due to the controlled environment that the birds experienced while in captivity. Our data suggest that, in addition to sickness behaviors previously observed in finches, M. gallisepticum infection decreases other behaviors critical to survival, such as preening. While the consequences of reduced preening on feather maintenance were not apparent in captive conditions, further work is needed to determine whether House Finches in the wild that are infected with M. gallisepticum experience a fitness cost, such as increases in ectoparasite loads, due to this reduced feather maintenance.

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