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Carotenoid-Based Plumage Coloration Predicts Leukocyte Parameters during the Breeding Season in Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)


Donna L. Maney, Department of Psychology, Emory University, 532 Kilgo Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. E-mail:


Dichromatism in songbirds is often associated with polygyny and dimorphic parental investment, and is thought to arise via sexual selection. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are not only dichromatic but also monogamous and biparental, suggesting that plumage coloration in this species may serve different functions than in more typical dichromatic species. In order to explore the role of sexual selection in the evolution of plumage coloration in cardinals, we used reflectance spectrophotometry to investigate whether two carotenoid-based ornaments, the male’s red breast and the female’s underwing coverts, contain information that potential mates or competitors could use to assess condition. We found that whereas coloration was not related to body condition (measured as the residual body mass from a regression of body mass on wing chord), more saturated carotenoid coloration was associated with higher heterophil to lymphocyte ratios in males, and with higher white blood cell counts in females. Thus, in both sexes, carotenoid coloration was positively linked to immune measures normally associated with higher levels of stress and infection. These results do not indicate that carotenoid-based coloration functions as a signal of low levels of stress or disease in this species. We propose instead that because plumage coloration may be related to competitiveness, the more saturated individuals increase their risk of injury, stress, and infection by engaging in more competitive behavior or by secreting more testosterone, or both. Our finding that carotenoid pigmentation is positively associated in males with the size of the cloacal protuberance, an androgen-sensitive sex character, supports this hypothesis.