Color Matters in Nonbreeding Season

March 12, 2014 by Chris Tonra

Plumage coloration in birds plays a critical role in communication and can be under selection throughout the annual cycle as a sexual and social signal. However, for migratory birds, little is known about the acquisition and maintenance of colorful plumage during the nonbreeding period.

Winter habitat could influence the quality of colorful plumage, ultimately carrying over to influence sexual selection and social interactions during the breeding period. In addition to the annual growth of colorful feathers, feather loss from agonistic interactions or predator avoidance could require birds to replace colorful feathers in winter or experience plumage degradation.

We hypothesized that conditions on the wintering grounds of migratory birds influence the quality of colorful plumage. We predicted that the quality of American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) tail feathers regrown after experimental removal in Jamaica, West Indies, would be positively associated with habitat quality, body condition, and testosterone.

Both yearling (SY) and adult (ASY) males regrew feathers with lower red chroma, suggesting reduced carotenoid content. While we did not observe a change in hue in ASY males, SY males shifted from yellow to orange plumage resembling experimentally regrown ASY feathers.

American restart tail feathers. SY are yearling birds; ASY are adults

We did not observe any effects of habitat, testosterone, or mass change. Our results demonstrate that redstarts are limited in their ability to adequately replace colorful plumage, regardless of habitat, in winter. Thus, feather loss on the nonbreeding grounds can affect social signals, potentially negatively carrying over to the breeding period.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Tonra, C. M., Marini, K. L. D., Marra, P. P., Germain, R. R., Holberton, R. L. and Reudink, M. W. (2014), Color expression in experimentally regrown feathers of an overwintering migratory bird: implications for signaling and seasonal interactions. Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1002/ece3.994

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