The relationships between haematozoan parasites, cell-mediated immune response, territory features and colour morph were investigated in tawny owls Strix aluco, in the Park of Monza in Milan, northern Italy. Rufous and grey birds were found to differ significantly in their blood parasite loads, particularly during the breeding season, when rufous birds hosted more parasites than grey birds. The increase in parasitaemia of rufous owl was not, however, owing to the breeding status of sampled individuals. Although body condition was similar between the two colour morphs, immune response was higher in grey than in rufous owls for the same level of parasites. Moreover, parasites seemed to influence breeding of rufous birds negatively, because only individuals with no or few parasites reproduced. Both these results suggested a higher susceptibility to parasites of rufous owls. Nevertheless, a habitat effect existed because parasite loads increased significantly with woodland extent and tree-density within owl territories, and rufous birds defended more wooded territories than grey ones. Thus, the differential parasitaemia between colour morphs in tawny owls may be the result of both a differential exposure to flying vectors depending on habitat selection and a differential colour-based susceptibility of individuals.
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