Published: February 25, 2015
Although Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato (s.l.) are found in a great diversity of vertebrates, most studies in North America have focused on the role of mammals as spirochete reservoir hosts. We investigated the roles of birds as hosts for subadult Ixodes pacificus ticks and potential reservoirs of the Lyme disease spirochete B. burgdorferi sensu stricto (s.s.) in northwestern California. Overall, 623 birds representing 53 species yielded 284 I. pacificus larvae and nymphs. We used generalized linear models and zero-inflated negative binomial models to determine associations of bird behaviors, taxonomic relationships and infestation by I. pacificuswith borrelial infection in the birds. Infection status in birds was best explained by taxonomic order, number of infesting nymphs, sampling year, and log-transformed average body weight. Presence and counts of larvae and nymphs could be predicted by ground- or bark-foraging behavior and contact with dense oak woodland. Molecular analysis yielded the first reported detection of Borrelia bissettii in birds. Moreover, our data suggest that the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), a non-resident species, could be an important reservoir for B. burgdorferi s.s. Of 12 individual birds (9 species) that carried B. burgdorferi s.l.-infected larvae, no birds carried the same genospecies of B. burgdorferi s.l. in their blood as were present in the infected larvae removed from them. Possible reasons for this discrepancy are discussed. Our study is the first to explicitly incorporate both taxonomic relationships and behaviors as predictor variables to identify putative avian reservoirs of B. burgdorferi s.l. Our findings underscore the importance of bird behavior to explain local tick infestation and Borrelia infection in these animals, and suggest the potential for bird-mediated geographic spread of vector ticks and spirochetes in the far-western United States.