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Abstract

Individual variation in achromatic plumage reflectance of male Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) is correlated with social rank and reproductive success, suggesting it may play an important role in sexual signaling. We asked whether female chickadees could assess male quality based on plumage, in the absence of information about relative social dominance. Sexually mature but inexperienced females captured during the pair formation period in late fall and early winter were presented with a choice of two unfamiliar, sexually experienced males in separate compartments of an outdoor mate choice arena. Following each preference trial, we released the males into a single compartment and scored their pairwise dominance interactions. In 10 of 11 trials, females spent significantly more time with the male subsequently identified as dominant, despite not witnessing the males interact. Spectral analysis of male plumage reflectance revealed that UV-chroma of dark body regions (bib, cap and mantle) was significantly greater in dominant, preferred males and that dominant, preferred males had significantly brighter white cheek patches. There were no differences in vocalization rates of preferred and non-preferred males. These results show that female chickadees can rapidly assess unfamiliar males based on visual cues, and suggest that variation in achromatic plumage functions in sexual signaling.