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Open Access Research article

Individual quality explains association between plumage colouration, arrival dates and mate acquisition in yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia)

Teri B Jones*, Anna Drake and David J Green

Author Affiliations

Centre for Wildlife Ecology, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada

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BMC Ecology 2014, 14:13  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-14-13

Published: 7 May 2014

Abstract

Background

In many bird species colour traits influence social dominance and breeding success. In our study we first evaluated whether the colour of the basic plumage (tail feathers grown at the end of the breeding season), that provides an index of individual quality, influenced winter habitat use by yellow warblers. We then evaluated whether winter habitat use (inferred using δ13C and δ15N signatures of winter grown greater-coverts) influenced alternate plumage colouration, after controlling for individual quality using basic plumage colouration. Finally, we investigated whether basic and alternate plumage colouration influenced arrival dates, mate acquisition, breeding phenology and reproductive success of yellow warblers breeding in southern (Revelstoke, B.C.) and arctic (Inuvik, N.W.T.) Canada.

Results

The colour (chroma and hue) of tail feathers, grown on the breeding grounds, was not related to subsequent winter habitat use. Greater covert and tail feather colour (chroma and hue) were correlated, suggesting genetics and/or individual quality played a role in pigment deposition. After controlling for individual difference in tail colour, δ13C values did not explain any variation in greater covert colour, but birds with high δ15N signatures had greater coverts with higher chroma. Male arrival dates varied with tail chroma in Revelstoke and tail hue in Inuvik. Males that arrived early paired with older and/or more colourful mates that initiated clutches earlier, and at one site (Revelstoke) were more likely to fledge young. In addition, in Revelstoke (but not Inuvik) males with high tail hue also acquired more colourful mates. In contrast, after controlling for individual differences in tail colour, greater covert colour did not affect male arrival date, the quality of the mate obtained or reproductive success in either population.

Conclusions

Our results suggest that plumage colour effects on breeding phenology and mate acquisition result from differences in the intrinsic quality of individuals rather than a carry-over effect of winter habitat use.

Keywords:
Carry-over effects; Seasonal interactions; Breeding phenology; Plumage colour; Carotenoid-based colouration; Yellow warbler; American redstart