We used a brood-size manipulation to test the effect of rearing environment on structural coloration of feathers grown by eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) nestlings. Ultraviolet (UV)-blue structural coloration has been shown to be sexually selected in this species. Our experimental design took advantage of the growth of UV-blue wing feathers in nestlings that are retained as part of the first nuptial plumage. We cross-fostered nestlings to create enlarged and reduced broods with the purpose of manipulating parental feeding rates and measured the effect on nestling growth and plumage coloration. Brood size influenced feeding rates to offspring, but the effect varied with season. In general, male nestlings reared in reduced broods were fed more often, weighed more, and displayed brighter structural plumage compared to nestlings reared in enlarged broods. Female nestlings appeared to experience less adverse affects of brood enlargement, and we did not detect an effect of brood-size manipulation on the plumage coloration of female nestlings. Measures of plumage coloration in both males and females, however, were correlated to hatching date and nestling mass during feather development. These data provide empirical evidence that environmental quality can influence the development of the blue structural coloration of feathers and that males may be more sensitive to environmental fluctuations than females.
Structural plumage coloration; Condition-dependent traits; Sexual selection; Parental care; Parental effects
Life-history theory proposes that organisms must trade-off investment in current and future reproduction. Production of ornamental display is an important component of reproductive effort that has rarely been considered in tests of allocation trade-offs. Male eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) display brilliant ultraviolet-blue plumage that is correlated with mate acquisition and male competitive ability. To investigate trade-offs between current reproductive effort and the future expression of a sexually selected ornament, we manipulated the parental effort of males by changing their brood sizes. We found that parents provisioned experimentally enlarged broods more often than reduced broods. As predicted by life-history theory, the change in parental effort had a significant effect on the relative plumage ornamentation of males in the subsequent year: males with reduced broods significantly increased in plumage brightness. Moreover, this change in plumage coloration had a direct effect on the timing of breeding in the following season: males that displayed brighter plumage in the year following the manipulation mated with females that initiated egg laying earlier in the season. These data indicate that male bluebirds must trade-off conserving energy for production of future ornamentation versus expending energy for current reproduction.
sexual selection; life-history evolution; trade-offs; structural plumage; parental effort
Delayed dispersal, where offspring remain with parents beyond the usual period of dependence, is the typical route leading to formation of kin-based cooperative societies. The prevailing explanations for why offspring stay home are variation in resource wealth, in which offspring of wealthy parents benefit disproportionately by staying home, and nepotism, where the tendency for parents to be less aggressive and share food with offspring makes home a superior place to wait to breed. These hypotheses are not strict alternatives, as only wealthy parents have sufficient resources to share. In western bluebirds, Sialia mexicana, sons usually delay dispersal until after winter, gaining feeding advantages through maternal nepotism in a familial winter group. Experimentally reducing resource wealth (mistletoe) by half on winter territories caused sons to disperse in summer, even though their parents remained on the territory during the winter. Only 8% of sons remained with their parents on mistletoe-removal territories compared to 50% of sons on control territories (t9,10=3.33, p<0.005). This study is the first to demonstrate that experimentally reducing wealth of a natural food resource reduces delayed dispersal, facilitating nepotism and family-group living. The results clarify the roles of year-round residency, resource limitation and relative wealth outside the breeding season in facilitating the formation of kin-based cooperative societies.
dispersal; cooperative breeding; mistletoe; bluebird; resource wealth
Whether or not bird ornaments are a signal for direct (e.g. good parents) or indirect (e.g. good genes) benefits to prospective partners in sexual selection is controversial. Carotene coloration in Parus species is directly related to the ingestion of caterpillars, so that a brightly carotene-coloured tit may be signalling its ability to find caterpillars, a main high-quality food source for good fledgling development, and hence its parental abilities. If carotene-based plumage coloration is related to the good-parent hypothesis, we predict that yellow plumage brightness of tit fathers should be positively correlated to their investment in offspring provisioning. Here, we use cross-fostering experiments in blue tits (Parus caeruleus) to show that chick development (as measured by tarsus length) is related to yellowness of the foster father, but not to that of the genetic parents. Using these data, we were able to measure, for the first time to our knowledge, the separate contribution of genetic and environmental factors (i.e. parental plumage coloration) to chick development, and hence parental investment. Our data, which relate carotenoid coloration to models of good parents, and data from other authors, which relate ultraviolet coloration to good-genes models, stress that different kinds of coloration within an individual may provide different units of information to prospective females.
Evidence suggests that structural plumage colour can be an honest signal of individual quality, but the mechanisms responsible for the variation in expression of structural coloration within a species have not been identified. We used full-spectrum spectrometry and transmission electron microscopy to investigate the effect of variation in the nanostructure of the spongy layer on expression of structural ultraviolet (UV)-blue coloration in eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) feathers. Fourier analysis revealed that feather nanostructure was highly organized but did not accurately predict variation in hue. Within the spongy layer of feather barbs, the number of circular keratin rods significantly predicted UV-violet chroma, whereas the standard error of the diameter of these rods significantly predicted spectral saturation. These observations show that the precision of nanostructural arrangement determines some colour variation in feathers.
Sexual signals, such as bright plumage coloration in passerine birds, reflect individual quality, and testosterone (T) may play a critical role in maintaining signal honesty. Manipulations of T during molt have yielded mixed effects on passerine plumage color, in most cases delaying molt or leading to production of drab plumage. However, the majority of these studies have been conducted on species that undergo a post-nuptial molt when T is low; the role of T in species that acquire breeding plumage during a pre-nuptial molt remains largely unexplored.
We experimentally tested the effects of increased T on plumage color in second-year male red-backed fairy-wrens (Malurus melanocephalus), a species in which after-second-year males undergo a pre-nuptial molt into red/black (carotenoid and melanin-based) plumage and second-year males either assume red/black or brown breeding plumage. T treatment stimulated a rapid and early onset pre-nuptial molt and resulted in red/black plumage acquisition, bill darkening, and growth of the sperm storage organ, but had no effect on body condition or corticosterone concentrations. Control males molted later and assumed brown plumage. T treated males produced feathers with similar but not identical reflectance parameters to those of unmanipulated after-second-year red/black males; while reflectance spectra of red back and black crown feathers were similar, black breast feathers differed in UV chroma, hue and brightness, indicating a potentially age and plumage patch-dependent response to T for melanin- vs. carotenoid-pigmentation.
We show that testosterone is the primary mechanism functioning during the pre-nuptial molt to regulate intrasexually variable plumage color and breeding phenotype in male red-backed fairy-wrens. Our results suggest that the effects of T on plumage coloration may vary with timing of molt (pre- vs. post-nuptial), and that the role of T in mediating plumage signal production may differ across age classes, plumage patches, and between pigment-types.
In species with bi-parental care, individuals must partition energy between parental effort and mating effort. Typically, female songbirds invest more than males in reproductive activities such as egg-laying and incubation, but males invest more in secondary sexual traits used in attracting mates. Animals that breed more than once within a season must also allocate time and energy between first and subsequent breeding attempts and between current and future breeding seasons. To investigate strategies of reproductive investment by males and females and the consequences of such strategies, we manipulated the size of broods of Eastern Bluebirds Sialia sialis. Pairs with enlarged first broods were less likely to produce a second clutch or took longer to initiate one than pairs with reduced broods. After rearing enlarged broods, females were less likely than males to survive to the following year. Although plumage coloration is a sexually selected trait in Eastern Bluebirds that is influenced by nutritional stress, we did not detect an effect of brood-size manipulation on female coloration. Past research, however, demonstrates that, in males, plumage colour is negatively affected by increasing brood size. We suggest that there are sex-specific strategies of reproductive investment in Eastern Bluebirds, and that researchers should incorporate measures of residual reproductive value in studies of life-history evolution.
brood manipulation; life-history evolution; multiple clutches; survival; trade-offs
The hypothesis that nestlings are a significant driver of arbovirus transmission and amplification is based upon findings that suggest nestlings are highly susceptible to being fed upon by vector mosquitoes and to viral infection and replication. Several previous studies have suggested that nestlings are preferentially fed upon relative to adults in the nest, and other studies have reported a preference for adults over nestlings. We directly tested the feeding preference of nestling and adult birds in a natural setting, introducing mosquitoes into nesting boxes containing eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), collecting blood-fed mosquitoes, and matching the source of mosquito blood meals to individual birds using microsatellite markers. Neither nestlings nor adults were fed upon to an extent significantly greater than would be predicted based upon their relative abundance in the nests, although feeding upon mothers decreased as the age of the nestlings increased.
Nestling birds solicit food from their parents by displaying their open brightly coloured gapes. Carotenoids affect gape colour, but also play a central role in immunostimulation. Therefore, we hypothesize that, by differentially allocating resources to nestlings with more brightly coloured gapes, parents favour healthy offspring which are able to allocate carotenoids to gape coloration without compromising their immune defence. We demonstrated that, in the barn swallow Hirundo rustica, (i) parents differentially allocate food to nestlings with an experimentally brighter red gape, (ii) nestlings challenged with a novel antigen (sheep red blood cells, SRBCs) have less bright gape colour than their control siblings, (iii) nestlings challenged with SRBCs but also provided with the principal circulating carotenoid (lutein) have more brightly coloured red gapes than their challenged but unsupplemented siblings and (iv) the gape colour of nestlings challenged with SRBCs and provisioned with lutein exceeds that of siblings that were unchallenged. This suggests that parents may favour nestlings with superior health by preferentially feeding offspring with the brightest gapes.
Introduced species can exert outsized impacts on native biota through both direct (predation) and indirect (competition) effects. Ants frequently become established in new areas after being transported by humans across traditional biological or geographical barriers, and a prime example of such establishment is the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). Introduced to North America in the 1930's, red imported fire ants are now firmly established throughout the southeastern United States. Although these invasive predators can dramatically impact native arthropods, their effect on vertebrates through resource competition is essentially unknown. Using a paired experimental design, we compared patterns of foraging and rates of provisioning for breeding eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in unmanipulated (control) territories to those in adjacent (treated) territories where fire ants were experimentally reduced. Bluebirds inhabiting treated territories foraged nearer their nests and provisioned offspring more frequently than bluebirds inhabiting control territories with unmanipulated fire ant levels. Additionally, nestlings from treated territories were in better condition than those from control territories, though these differences were largely confined to early development. The elimination of significant differences in body condition towards the end of the nestling period suggests that bluebird parents in control territories were able to make up the food deficit caused by fire ants, potentially by working harder to adequately provision their offspring. The relationship between fire ant abundance and bluebird behavior hints at the complexity of ecological communities and suggests negative effects of invasive species are not limited to taxa with which they have direct contact.
Invasive species; resource competition; parental care; Sialia sialis; Solenopsis invicta
Introduced organisms can alter ecosystems by disrupting natural ecological relationships. For example, red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) have disrupted native arthropod communities throughout much of their introduced range. By competing for many of the same food resources as insectivorous vertebrates, fire ants also have the potential to disrupt vertebrate communities.
To explore the effects of fire ants on a native insectivorous vertebrate, we compared the reproductive success and strategies of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) inhabiting territories with different abundances of fire ants. We also created experimental dyads of adjacent territories comprised of one territory with artificially reduced fire ant abundance (treated) and one territory that was unmanipulated (control). We found that more bluebird young fledged from treated territories than from adjacent control territories. Fire ant abundance also explained significant variation in two measures of reproductive success across the study population: number of fledglings and hatching success of second clutches. Furthermore, the likelihood of bluebird parents re-nesting in the same territory was negatively influenced by the abundance of foraging fire ants, and parents nesting in territories with experimentally reduced abundances of fire ants produced male-biased broods relative to pairs in adjacent control territories.
Introduced fire ants altered both the reproductive success (number of fledglings, hatching success) and strategies (decision to renest, offspring sex-ratio) of eastern bluebirds. These results illustrate the negative effects that invasive species can have on native biota, including species from taxonomically distant groups.
House wren (Troglodytes aedon), tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), and eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) tissues collected in study areas (SAs) downstream of Midland, Michigan (USA) contained concentrations of polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) greater than in upstream reference areas (RAs) in the region. The sum of concentrations of PCDD/DFs (ΣPCDD/DFs) in eggs of house wrens and eastern bluebirds from SAs were 4- to 22-fold greater compared to those from RAs, whereas concentrations in tree swallow eggs were similar among areas. Mean concentrations of ΣPCDD/DFs and sum 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin equivalents (ΣTEQsWHO-Avian), based on 1998 WHO avian toxic equivalency factors, in house wren and eastern bluebird eggs ranged from 860 (430) to 1500 (910) ng/kg wet weight (ww) and 470 (150) to 1100 (510) ng/kg ww, respectively, at the most contaminated study areas along the Tittabawassee River, whereas mean concentrations in tree swallow eggs ranged from 280 (100) to 760 (280) ng/kg ww among all locations. Concentrations of ΣPCDD/DFs in nestlings of all studied species at SAs were 3- to 50-fold greater compared to RAs. Mean house wren, tree swallow, and eastern bluebird nestling concentrations of ΣPCDD/DFs and ΣTEQsWHO-Avian ranged from 350 (140) to 610 (300) ng/kg ww, 360 (240) to 1100 (860) ng/kg ww, and 330 (100) to 1200 (690) ng/kg ww, respectively, at SAs along the Tittabawassee River. Concentrations of ΣTEQsWHO-Avian were positively correlated with ΣPCDD/DF concentrations in both eggs and nestlings of all species studied. Profiles of relative concentrations of individual congeners were dominated by furan congeners (69–84%), primarily 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzofuran and 2,3,4,7,8-pentachlorodibenzofuran, for all species at SAs on the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers but were dominated by dioxin congeners at upstream RAs.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00244-009-9416-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Structural colors result from the physical interaction of light with organic materials of differing refractive indexes organized at nanoscale dimensions to produce significant interference effects. Because color properties emerge from these finely organized nanostructures, the production of structural coloration could respond to environmental factors and be developmentally more plastic than expected, functioning as an indicator of individual quality. However, there are many unknown factors concerning the function and mechanisms regulating structural coloration, especially relative to social environment. We hypothesized that social environment, in the form of competitive settings, can influence the developmental pathways involving production of feather structural coloration. We experimentally assessed the impact of social environment upon body condition, molt and spectral properties of two types of structural color that compose the nuptial plumage in blue-black grassquits: black iridescent plumage and white underwing patches. We manipulated male social environment during nine months by keeping individuals in three treatments: (1) pairs; (2) all-male groups; and (3) male-female mixed groups. All morphological characters and spectral plumage measures varied significantly through time, but only acquisition of nuptial plumage coverage and nuptial plumage color were influenced by social environment. Compared with males in the paired treatment, those in treatments with multiple males molted into nuptial plumage faster and earlier, and their plumage was more UV-purple-shifted. Our results provide experimental evidence that social context strongly influences development and expression of structural plumage. These results emphasize the importance of long-term experimental studies to identify the phenotypic consequences of social dynamics relative to ornament expression.
Species reintroductions are used commonly as a tool for conservation, but rigorous, quantitative assessments of their outcome rarely occur. Such assessments are critical for determining success of the reintroduction and for identifying management actions needed to ensure persistence of reintroduced populations. We collected 9 years of demographic data on populations of brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) reintroduced via translocation into Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA. Realized population growth of brown-headed nuthatches was positive in the first 3 years after cessation of translocations (λ2002 = 1.15, SE = 0.13; λ2003 = 1.28, SE = 0.12; λ2005 = 1.32, SE = 0.20) but became negative thereafter (λ2006 = 0.67, SE = 0.10; λ2007 = 0.77, SE = 0.13). Realized growth rate for the Eastern bluebird population did not vary among years and indicated either a stable or a slowly declining population (λ = 0.92, SE = 0.04). Reintroductions were a qualified success; they resulted in the re-establishment of populations of both species, but neither population grew to the extent expected and both remained at risk of extinction.
brown-headed nuthatch; Eastern bluebird; Everglades; population growth; populations; Pradel model; reintroduction; Sialia sialis; Sitta pusilla
Parental preferences during feeding and care-giving may select for ornamental traits in young, such as bright coloration. For chicks of coots, there is experimental evidence for this idea. We examined the hypothesis that bright yellow, orange and red mouths of chicks of songbirds have been favoured by feeding preferences in parents. In a field experiment, the orange–yellow mouths of great tit nestlings were dyed brightly red, and the feeding response of parents recorded. In nest boxes with extra daylight through a window, experimental chicks were on average given twice as much food (biomass) as control chicks (sham dyed). In normal nest boxes, the tendency was similar, but not significant. Thus, at least in good light, great tit parents prefer to feed young with red mouths, a preference for colourfulness that helps explain the evolution of bright gapes in chicks of songbirds (passerine birds).
Feeding Preferences Songbirds Mouth Colour
Variation in the prevalence of blood parasites among species of birds has been used to test hypotheses about the effects of sexual selection and parental investment on disease resistance, and how vector abundance influences infection. However, the factors causing this variation are still poorly understood. We assessed the statistical effects of biogeographic, plumage-related and life-history traits on the prevalence of the blood parasites Plasmodium, Haemoproteus, Leucocytozoon and Trypanosoma in European passerine birds. Most of the variation in parasite prevalence occurred at low taxonomic levels. Brighter male plumage and greater host body mass were associated with higher prevalence, explaining 32% of the total variation. Male plumage brightness remained a significant factor when we controlled for phylogenetic effects. These relationships were driven primarily by simuliid-transmitted parasites (Leucocytozoon, Trypanosoma), which were more frequent in species with northern distributions. Host species with greater maximum longevity and shorter nestling periods had higher prevalences of Plasmodium; however, the effect was not stable after controlling for phylogeny using pairwise contrasts. Coevolution between hosts and parasites appears to create temporal and spatial variation that disconnects haematozoan prevalence from evolutionarily conservative life-history traits while creating some positive associations with traits that are phylogenetically labile. Clearly, ecologists should be cautious in relating patterns of variation in haematozoan prevalence to particular host traits.
Life-history theory predicts that parents face a trade-off between the number and viability of the progeny they produce. We found evidence for an apparent trade-off in a free-living population of American kestrels (Falco sparverius), as larger clutches produced more but lighter fledglings. However, while the body mass of fledglings has traditionally been used as a measure of survival prospect, offspring immunocompetence should also play an important role. We thus measured the T-cell-mediated immune response of fledgling kestrels in relation to brood traits and nest-rearing conditions through a cross-fostering experiment. The immune response was positively correlated with the body condition of fledglings, but was also higher in those hatched from five-egg than four-egg clutches. These results were not influenced by other brood traits, nor by current exposure to stressors and infectious agents, as measured by serological variables. Such ability to resist pathogens may account for why the probability of offspring returning to the study area in subsequent years, when controlling for brood size, was higher for five-egg than four-egg clutches. These results suggest an optimal clutch size through maternal effects on offspring immunocompetence rather than a trade-off between the number and quality of the offspring.
When the reproductive value of sons and daughters differ, parents are expected to adjust the sex ratio of their offspring to produce more of the sex that provides greater fitness returns. The body condition of females or environmental factors, such as food abundance and mate quality, may influence these expected fitness returns. In a previous study of tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), we found that females produced more sons in their broods when they were in better body condition (mass corrected for size). We tested this relationship by experimentally clipping some flight feathers to reduce female body condition. As predicted, we found that females with clipped feathers had a lower proportion of sons in their broods and poorer body condition. However, female body condition alone was not a significant predictor of brood sex ratio in our experiment. We suggest that brood sex ratio is causally related to some other factor that covaries with body condition, most likely the foraging ability of females. The hypothesis that brood sex ratios are influenced by individual differences in female foraging ability is supported by a high repeatability of brood sex ratio for individual females. Thus, maternal effects may have a strong influence on the sex ratios of offspring.
brood sex ratio; CHD gene; condition; maternal effects; repeatability; Tachycineta bicolor
Individuals often derive considerable evolutionary benefit from manipulating others. In the majority of cases, manipulation involves direct interactions between individuals. In the dung beetle, Onthophagus taurus, females mated with large males provide more resources to their offspring. Here, we demonstrate, however, that this may result in manipulation that extends across generations: the care that a mother provides to a developing son influences the parental effort of his mate (the mother's daughter-in-law (DIL)). Maternal care associated with constructing heavier brood masses has previously been shown substantially to influence offspring size, male mating success and female survival and fecundity in this species. The mother-in-law effect that we document here is, however, the ability to produce large sons from relatively lighter brood masses. Our results demonstrate not only that females are able to manipulate the parental effort of DILs that they do not directly encounter, but that provisioning relatively lighter brood masses may have evolutionary benefits that trade off against the considerable benefits of producing heavy brood masses.
Adjustment of offspring sex ratios should be favoured by natural selection when parents are capable of facultatively altering brood sex ratios and of recognizing the circumstances that predict the probable fitness benefit of producing sons and daughters. Although experimental studies have shown that female birds may adjust offspring sex ratios in response to changes in their own condition and in the external appearance of their mate, and male attributes other than his external morphology are also thought to act as signals of male quality, it is not known whether females will respond to changes in such signals, in the absence of any change in the appearance of the male himself. Here, we experimentally manipulated a male courtship display, the green plants carried to the nest by male spotless starlings (Sturnus unicolor), without changing any physical attributes of the male himself, and examined whether this influenced female decisions on offspring sex ratio. We found that in an environment in which female starlings were producing more daughters than sons, experimental enhancement of the green nesting material caused females to significantly increase the number of male eggs produced and thereby removed the female bias. This effect was consistent in 2 years and at two localities. This demonstrates that the green material, whose function has long puzzled biologists, conveys important information to the female and that she facultatively adjusts offspring production accordingly.
The differential allocation hypothesis predicts that parents should adjust their current investment in relation to perceived mate attractiveness if this affects offspring fitness. It should be selectively advantageous to risk more of their future reproductive success by investing heavily in current offspring of high reproductive value but to decrease investment if offspring value is low. If the benefits of mate attractiveness are limited to a particular offspring sex we would instead expect relative investment in male versus female offspring to vary with mate attractiveness, referred to as 'differential sex allocation'. We present strong evidence for differential allocation of parental feeding effort in the wild and show an immediate effect on a component of offspring fitness. By experimentally reducing male UV crown coloration, a trait known to indicate attractiveness and viability in wild-breeding blue tits (Parus caeruleus), we show that females, but not males, reduce parental feeding rates and that this reduces the skeletal growth of offspring. However, differential sex allocation does not occur. We conclude that blue tit females use male UV coloration as an indicator of expected offspring fitness and adjust their investment accordingly.
Sexual selection requires both that there is heritable variation in traits related to fitness, and that either some of this variation is linked to traits of the parents, and/or that there are direct benefits of choosing particular individuals as mates. This suggests that if direct benefits are important offspring performance should be predicted by traits of the rearing adults. But if indirect benefits are more significant offspring performance should be predicted by traits of the adults at the nest-of-origin. We conducted cross-fostering experiments in great tits (Parus major) over four years, in two of which we manipulated environmental conditions by providing supplemental food. In a third year, some nestlings were directly supplemented with carotenoids. Nestlings in broods whose rearing adults received supplemental food were heavier and had improved immune responses even when controlling for body mass. Nestling immune function was related to measures of the yellow plumage color of both the rearing male and the putative father. Nestling body mass was influenced by the coloration of both the rearing female and the genetic mother. Our results suggest that features of both their social and putative genetic parents influence nestling health and growth. From this it would appear that females could be gaining both direct and indirect benefits through mate choice of male plumage traits and that it would be possible for males to similarly gain through mate choice of female traits.
Parent-offspring conflicts lead the offspring to evolve reliable signals of individual quality, including parasite burden, which may allow parents to adaptively modulate investment in the progeny. Sex-related variation in offspring reproductive value, however, may entail differential investment in sons and daughters. Here, we experimentally manipulated offspring condition in the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) by subjecting nestlings to an immune challenge (injection with bacterial lipopolysaccharide, LPS) that simulates a bacterial infection, and assessed the effects on growth, feather quality, expression of morphological (gape coloration) and behavioral (posture) begging displays involved in parent-offspring communication, as well as on food allocation by parents. Compared to sham-injected controls, LPS-treated chicks suffered a depression of body mass and a reduction of palate color saturation. In addition, LPS treatment resulted in lower feather quality, with an increase in the occurrence of fault bars on wing feathers. The color of beak flanges, feather growth and the intensity of postural begging were affected by LPS treatment only in females, suggesting that chicks of either sex are differently susceptible to the immune challenge. However, irrespective of the effects of LPS, parents equally allocated food among control and challenged offspring both under normal food provisioning and after a short period of food deprivation of the chicks. These results indicate that bacterial infection and the associated immune response entail different costs to offspring of either sex, but a decrease in nestling conditions does not affect parental care allocation, possibly because the barn swallow adopts a brood-survival strategy. Finally, we showed that physiological stress induced by pathogens impairs plumage quality, a previously neglected major negative impact of bacterial infection which could severely affect fitness, particularly among long-distance migratory birds.
For most species of birds, ornamental plumage coloration may result from two types of pigments: carotenoids and melanins. Despite the fact that melanin pigments can be synthesized by birds from basic, amino acid precursors, while carotenoids cannot be synthesized by birds and must be ingested, melanin-based plumage coloration and carotenoid-based plumage coloration have often been treated as a single trait in investigations of the function and evolution of plumage coloration. Expression of carotenoid-based coloration is known to be dependent on condition, while the effects of individual condition have not been well-tested for expression of melanin-based coloration. In this study, we experimentally tested the effect of coccidial infection of the intestinal tract of male house finches during moult on expression of melanin-based plumage coloration. Coccidial infection had a significant negative effect on carotenoid-based coloration, but it had no significant effect on melanin-based feather coloration. Unlike carotenoid-based coloration, melanin-based coloration may be cheap to produce, and honesty of melanin-based coloration my require social mediation.
Several avian species show a bright carotenoid-based coloration during spring and following a period of duller coloration during the previous winter, despite carotenoids presumably being fully deposited in feathers during the autumn moult. Carotenoid-based breast feathers of male linnets (Carduelis cannabina) increased in hue (redness), saturation and brightness after exposing them to outdoor conditions from winter to spring. This represents the first experimental evidence showing that carotenoid-based plumage coloration may increase towards a colourful expression due to biotic or abiotic environmental factors acting directly on full-grown feathers when carotenoids may be fully functional. Sunlight ultraviolet (UV) irradiation was hypothesized to denature keratin and other proteins that might protect pigments from degradation by this and other environmental factors, suggesting that sunlight UV irradiation is a major factor in the colour increase from winter to spring. Feather proteins and other binding molecules, if existing in the follicles, may be linked to carotenoids since their deposition into feathers to protect colourful features of associated carotenoids during the non-breeding season when its main signalling function may be relaxed. Progress towards uncovering the significance of concealment and subsequent display of colour expression should consider the potential binding and protecting nature of feather proteins associated with carotenoids.
carotenoids; Carduelis cannabina; feathers; high-performance liquid chromatography; keratin