Seasonal changes in colour: A comparison of structural, melanin- and carotenoid-based plumage colours

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Abstract

Plumage coloration is important for bird communication, most notably in sexual signalling. Colour is often considered a good quality indicator, and the expression of exaggerated colours may depend on individual condition during moult. After moult, plumage coloration has been deemed fixed due to the fact that feathers are dead structures. Still, many plumage colours change after moult, although whether this affects signalling has not been sufficiently assessed.<br /><br /><br /><br />We studied changes in coloration after moult in four passerine birds (robin, Erithacus rubecula; blackbird, Turdus merula; blue tit, Cyanistes caeruleus; and great tit, Parus major) displaying various coloration types (melanin-, carotenoid-based and structural). Birds were caught regularly during three years to measure plumage reflectance. We used models of avian colour vision to derive two variables, one describing chromatic and the other achromatic variation over the year that can be compared in magnitude among different colour types. All studied plumage patches but one (yellow breast of the blue tit) showed significant chromatic changes over the year, although these were smaller than for a typical dynamic trait (bill colour). Overall, structural colours showed a reduction in relative reflectance at shorter wavelengths, carotenoid-based colours the opposite pattern, while no general pattern was found for melanin-based colours. Achromatic changes were also common, but there were no consistent patterns of change for the different types of colours.<br /><br /><br /><br />Changes of plumage coloration independent of moult are probably widespread; they should be perceivable by birds and have the potential to affect colour signalling.

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Delhey, K., Burger, C., Fiedler, W., & Peters, A. (2010). Seasonal changes in colour: A comparison of structural, melanin- and carotenoid-based plumage colours. PLoS ONE, 5(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0011582

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