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Male starlings don’t sing to females on antidepressants

Posted August 15, 2018

Birds are eating our garbage, whether you like it or not. Sure, it would be nice if we just stopped polluting, but until that happens birds will be feasting on the things we throw out. For example, worms, maggots and flies at sewage treatment plants have been found to contain many different pharmaceuticals, including Prozac. Furthermore – male starlings don‘t like females on antidepressants as a new study led by the University of York has shown.

Male starlings don’t really like females on antidepressants and don’t sing to them. Image credit: Philip Heron via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Male starlings sing to females during courtship. It is a necessary part of their mating ritual. Starlings often flock feed in sewage works, which are rich in various bugs and maggots. However, low concentrations of Prozac somehow make females unattractive – males sing to them less if they are on antidepressants. That is a weird, but serious problem, because in 2016 in UK alone 64.7 million antidepressant items were prescribed and compounds in them break down very slowly, even after they pass through the body and into the sewage treatment facilities. For example, fluoxetine, commonly found in Prozac, can be found in starlings and it changes their behaviour.

Singing is a crucial part of starlings’ courtship. That is how males attract females and convince them to breed. However, it is males who are choosing to who to sing to. Sophia Whitlock, researcher on the project, said: “Singing is a key part of courtship for birds, used by males to court favoured females and used by females to choose the highest quality male to father their chicks. Males sang more than twice as often and as long to untreated females compared to females that had been receiving low doses of Prozac.” But the problems do not stop here.

Scientists also found males to be more aggressive towards females receiving a mild dose of Prozac. Instead of singing they chase and claw them. That is a big problem to females who, with no fault of their own, are receiving a small dose of antidepressants. They take longer to find a mate and are less likely to breed. With an increase in medicine use, we have to start thinking about things like that. Substances we take may end up in nature, causing some populations to decline. That is not the case with starlings yet, but with other species it might be.

But what is the solution? Better wastewater treatment methods? Less prescribed antidepressant? Scientists are yet to find the answer.


Source: University of York

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