In a study led by the University of South Australia and published in Biological Reviews, researchers have shed light on the surprising role of coprophagy, or the consumption of feces, in shaping the digestive tract of wild birds. This peculiar habit allows birds to absorb lost or deficient nutrients and adapt to seasonal variations in food sources, which is particularly crucial for migratory birds that alternate between fasting and metabolic feeding as they traverse the globe.

Dr. Barbara Drigo, a microbial ecologist at UniSA and lead author of the study, explains that consuming feces – either their own or from other birds – alters the bacteria and microbes in birds’ digestive tracts, enabling them to adapt to new environments. Intriguingly, there are also indications that feces ingestion could serve as a form of self-medication to combat infections in birds, although further research is needed to confirm this theory.

However, Dr. Drigo cautions that while coprophagy provides essential nutrients to birds, it also comes with a downside. Birds can harbor and transmit diseases to other birds and humans through their feces, and migratory birds, in particular, can effectively spread pathogens worldwide depending on their geographic range, behavior, and interactions with other animals and environments.

Moreover, consuming bird feces can increase exposure to antimicrobials, especially pesticides and cleaning products, leading to antimicrobial resistance. Dr. Drigo emphasizes that birds feeding in human environments are exposed to chemicals and metals from waste, wastewater, and garbage, which can alter their microbiota and cause antimicrobial resistance.

This research also highlights the importance of avoiding feeding bread to birds, as it diminishes the diversity of their gut microbiota. In contrast, when birds feed in natural locations, their digestive tract is much healthier.

Dr. Drigo stresses that a healthy avian gut is essential for regulating birds’ biological functions, and feces consumption plays a significant role in this process. However, while coprophagy is inherently beneficial, it can expose birds to harmful antimicrobial substances.

The study concludes by emphasizing the urgent need for further research to thoroughly investigate how different forms of coprophagy influence the gut microbiome of birds and how they affect their health at various life stages and in different environments.


Sources

University of South Australia | Dunbar A, Drigo B, Djordjevic SP, Donner E, Hoye BJ. Impacts of coprophagic foraging behaviour on the avian gut microbiome. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2024 Apr;99(2):582-597. doi: 10.1111/brv.13036


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