Early Adult Plumage Can Give Yearling Redstarts a Big Advantage

January 1, 2010 by Tina Gheen

Male American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) exhibit delayed plumage maturation. In other words, the first-year males look a lot like the olive-colored adult females. Males don't acquire their characteristic glossy black coloration and bright orange wing, tail, and flank patches until after they molt at the end of their first breeding season.

But sometimes younger males begin acquiring their adult colors before the molt. Scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center and Queen's University wondered if this premature coloration influenced the ability for yearling males to acquire high-quality winter habitat. In other words, could looking more like an adult give the younger males an advantage?

small olive, gray, and yellow bird
small olive, gray, and yellow bird
small black and orange bird

Adult male (left), young male with early molt (center), and female (right) redstarts.
© Cindy Mead, Ryan Germain, and Gerhard Hofmann.

Males who occupy high-quality, mangrove winter habitat are in better physical condition, arrive at their breeding grounds earlier, and have greater reproductive success than those found in low-quality, scrub habitat.

Naturally, with all these benefits, there is great competition for the high-quality winter sites. So how does a yearling male manage to grab a slice of that good habitat for himself?

In order to find out, the team of scientists studied American redstarts in their winter territory in Jamaica as well as their breeding territory in Ontario, Canada. The researchers captured yearling male restarts in mist nets in both locations. They banded the birds, recorded physical measurements, and took samples for plumage and stable carbon isotope analysis.

The yearling males captured in the high-quality mangrove habitat in Jamaica had more black plumage on their breasts than the birds living in the lower-quality scrub habitat. The team also found that the yearlings with more black breast plumage arrived on the breeding grounds in Ontario before their olive-colored counterparts.

From their findings, the team was able to deduce that yearling males with more black breast plumage held an advantage over the yearlings without black plumage. These darker males were able to occupy a higher quality habitat in the winter, providing themselves with a more reliable food source and raising their chances of survival. They also departed for the breeding grounds before the yearlings in the scrub habitat, which gave them a reproductive edge over the competition.

In many species of birds, a dark plumage badge is often associated with competitiveness and dominance, so the black chest plumage in yearling redstarts may be a sign of aggressiveness. The yearlings might even be acquiring the early black plumage as a result of feathers lost during fights over territory. In short, the yearling redstarts may take advantage of their premature adult plumage by using it as a signal of quality, allowing them to compete with the adult males for the most desired resources and habitat.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Germain, Ryan, Marra, Peter P., Kyser, T. Kurt and Ratcliffe, Laurene. 2010. Adult-Like Plumage Coloration Predicts Winter Territory Quality and Timing of Arrival on the Breeding Grounds of Yearling Male American Redstarts. The Condor, 112(4): 676-682.

Download scientific paper