Bill color varies with age and sex in zebra finches. Among birds of similar age and condition, males' bills tend to be redder and darker than those of females, but there is overlap in the phenotypic expression of the sexes. The bills of young birds are paler and less red than those of older birds. There is also interindividual variation within age and sex class.

Experiments were performed to measure heterosexual and isosexual (= same sex) preferences of finches. Females preferred to associate with males with the reddest, brightest bills; they even preferred males whose bills were exaggerated through color applications of non-toxic marking pen. Males preferred to associate with females with bill colors in the middle of the phenotypic range. Females thus have “directional” preferences for male bill color, whereas male preference is “stabilizing” with regard to female bill color.

In isosexual tests, neither sex showed a consistent preference for particular bill colors. Both sexes, however, displayed a tendency toward individual variability in preference. Bill color appears to be more important in heterosexual than in isosexual interactions.

Several authors have recently suggested that organisms prefer brightly colored mates because bright coloration indicates superior physical condition. Results reported here do not support this hypothesis. Alternative functional explanations for the observed preferences are that bill color signals mating status, age or reproductive value. None of these appears to be a cogent explanation for the trends. Preferences do not appear to result from sexual imprinting. The possibility that the preferences are aesthetic and non-functional is discussed.