Moult speed affects structural feather ornaments in the blue tit


Andrea Pilastro, Dipartimento di Biologia, University of Padova, via Ugo Bassi 58/B, I-35121 Padova, Italy.
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Growing evidence suggests that structural feather colours honestly reflect individual quality or body condition but, contrary to pigment-based colours, it is not clear what mechanism links condition to reflectance in structural feather colours. We experimentally accelerated the moult speed of a group of blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) by exposing them to a rapidly decreasing photoperiod and compared the spectral characteristics of their structural feather colours with those of control birds. Blue tits were sexually dimorphic on the UV/blue crown and on the white cheek feathers. Moult speed, however, dramatically reduced brightness and the saturation only on the UV/blue crown feathers, whereas structural white on the cheek feathers was basically unaffected by moult speed. Given that the time available for moulting is usually confined to the period between the end of the breeding season and migration or wintering, UV/blue colours, but not structural white, may convey long-term information about an individual’s performance during the previous breeding season. The trade-off between fast moulting and structural colour expression may represent a previously unrecognized selective advantage for early-breeding birds.