A team of ecologists discovered that city birds may be inserting cigarette butts into the lining of their nests in order to repel arthropods.
The scientists published their findings in the journal Biology Letters. Chemicals in the tobacco leaves are known to repel parasitic mites. Researchers examined the nests of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) and house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), measuring the amount of cellulose acetate, a component of cigarette butts. The more there was of it, the fewer parasitic mites were found.
Heat traps were used to see whether the repellent effect of cigarette butts was related to their nicotine content or other features. The traps, which use heat to lure parasites close, were fitted with cellulose fibers from smoked and unsmoked cigarettes.
The devices with unsmoked butts had many more parasites than devices with smoked butts, which contained more nicotine. In nests that contained bird eggs, traps with unsmoked butts caught on average more than twice as many parasites.
“It really makes me wonder: might these birds show a preference for cigarette brands high in nicotine? If they did, that might suggest this behavior has truly evolved as an adaptive response to challenges from parasites,” says Timothy Mousseau, an ecologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Researchers caution that as well as having anti-parasite effects, there may be negative effects for the birds because many compounds in cigarette butts are known carcinogens.
Reference: “Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe?” by Monserrat Suárez-Rodríguez, Isabel López-Rull and Constantino Macías Garcia, 23 February 2013, Biology Letters.