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Social Environment during Molt and the Expression of Melanin-Based Plumage Pigmentation in Male House Sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Evolutionary biologists have shown much recent interest in the costliness and signal content of colorful plumage displays in birds. Although many studies suggest that both carotenoid- and structurally-based plumage colors are condition-dependent indicators of health and nutritional state at the... Full description

1st Person: McGraw, Kevin J.
Additional Persons: Dale, James
Source: in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology Vol. 53, No. 2 (2003), p. 116-122
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Type of Publication: Article
Language: English
Published: 2003
Keywords: Aggressive behavior
Badge size
Competition
Melanin pigmentation
Plumage coloration
Online: Volltext
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520 |a Evolutionary biologists have shown much recent interest in the costliness and signal content of colorful plumage displays in birds. Although many studies suggest that both carotenoid- and structurally-based plumage colors are condition-dependent indicators of health and nutritional state at the time ornamental feathers are grown, there is little experimental evidence supporting the idea that melanin pigmentation is a reliable signal of condition during molt. Instead, melanin-based ornamental coloration often reveals the competitive ability and dominance of individuals throughout the year. However, this work does not indicate which proximate environmental factors shape the expression of melanin pigmentation at the time of feather growth. Because of the link between melanin coloration and the social environment, it is possible that the development of brightly colored plumage may be associated with aggressive social interactions during feather molt. Here, we show that melanin-based ornamental coloration in male house sparrows (Passer domesticus) is correlated with the degree to which individuals interact aggressively with conspecifics during molt. Males that were dominant (beta, but not alpha) within captive social groups during molt grew larger badges than subordinates. Groups of males that had higher rates of aggression during molt grew larger badges than less aggressive triads. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that melanin pigmentation and plumage-based status badges are related to the competitive history of individuals during feather development. By coupling badge size directly with aggressive experiences during molt, birds can use their status signal to honestly indicate their likelihood of winning agonistic encounters throughout the year. 
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