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Sexual Signals of the Male American Goldfinch


Keith A. Tarvin, Department of Biology, Oberlin College, 119 Woodland St, Oberlin, OH 44074, USA. E-mail:


Male American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) exhibit conspicuous yellow plumage, orange bills, and black caps during the breeding season. These secondary sexual characteristics may serve as criteria by which females evaluate males as potential mates because the traits vary among individuals and are likely to be costly. We quantified plumage and bill color and cap characteristics of wild, free-ranging American goldfinches during the breeding season and tested for relationships between those features, body condition and individual genetic diversity in males. Overall, male and female goldfinches were highly sexually dichromatic, with plumage saturation and brightness and bill brightness contributing strongly to the dimorphism. Body condition decreased significantly with Julian date, even over the 2-wk period immediately prior to the onset of nesting during which we collected our color and cap measurements. Principal components describing color of the back and the bill significantly predicted date-corrected body condition based on quadratic regressions, suggesting that there is reliable information in back and bill color that females could use when choosing mates. In a subset of captive males, we found that bill hue faded from orange to yellow within 24 h of capture, suggesting that bill color may reflect short-term changes in health status or carotenoid availability. Individual genetic diversity based on a panel of eight microsatellite loci was correlated with back brightness and perhaps with cap symmetry. Based on the results of this field study, ornamentation of male American goldfinches appears to signal both long- and short-term aspects of phenotypic quality.