Males in many bird species develop elaborate carotenoid-based plumage ornaments that play an important role as signals of individual quality in intra- or intersexual selection. In the present study, we investigated which of several factors related to male condition and health affect the brightness and coloration of the carotenoid-based orange–red breeding plumage in males of the red bishop (Euplectes orix), a polygynous and sexually dimorphic weaverbird species. The study revealed a very complex pattern, with the relationships between plumage traits and both heterophil-to-lymphocyte ratio and blood parasite load varying considerably among seasons, suggesting a strong influence of environmental conditions. Furthermore, overall condition of males strongly affected the association pattern between plumage traits and other factors, with males in bad condition being forced to allocate resources away from plumage elaboration to body maintenance or the enhancement of immune functions, whereas males in good condition can afford to invest in plumage ornamentation without obvious detrimental effects on health. Thus, females cannot rely on plumage characteristics alone to gather information on male quality, but have to assess additional traits that advertise general male health status. Perhaps surprisingly, testosterone levels were not related to male plumage characteristics. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 99, 384–397.