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The Value of Immaculate Mates: Relationships between Plumage Quality and Breeding Success in Shelducks


Peter N. Ferns, School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, PO Box 915, Cardiff CF1 3TL, UK. E-mail:


Immaculateness, a novel measure of bird plumage quality, defined as the regularity of the borders of a coloured patch of feathers, and the uniformity of the colour within the patch, tends to decline as a result of feather wear and damage. If it declines more quickly amongst birds in poor condition, it has the potential to act as an honest signal of individual quality and therefore be subject to social and sexual selection. We scored plumage immaculateness in shelducks Tadorna tadorna, based on the absence of white feathers in the red-brown chest band and the evenness of the band's border. We monitored body condition and plumage quality in birds at feeding sites in the Severn Estuary (UK) during the early breeding season when females were forming eggs, and later in the season when chicks arrived. Drakes had more immaculate chest bands than ducks. At preferred feeding sites, drakes were more immaculate, and birds of both sexes were in better body condition. Birds with more immaculate plumage tended to mate assortatively at preferred sites and were more likely to produce a brood that survived the journey to the feeding areas. Immaculateness could therefore be an honest signal of parental quality. Although our evidence is only correlational, we suggest that plumage immaculateness indicates the ability to establish and maintain control over the best breeding sites and feeding territories in the face of competition with other shelducks.