Variation in plumage colour of the Great tit Parus major in relation to habitat, season and food



The plumage colour of nestling and adult Great tits Parus major major L. was studied at Trondheim (63 °N, 10 °E), Norway. Nestlings reared in deciduous woodland were yellower than those reared in coniferous woodland, those reared in 1983 were yellower than those in 1982, and the later in the breeding season they were reared the more yellow they were. Furthermore, adults were yellower than nestlings, and for both groups the males were yellower than the females. Experimental interchange of eggs between nests showed that the variation in plumage colour observed between broods was related primarily to the food and not to genetic differences. Sampling, by the neck-collar method, of the food brought by the parent birds showed that the yellower nestlings received a greater proportion of lepidopteran larvae, in particular greenish-coloured ones, than did the nestlings with a paler plumage. A speculation is whether or not the variation in plumage colour has some adaptive value (viz. background matching).

In avian systematics, plumage coloration has been used to distinguish and describe subspecies. The present study shows that such a classification should only be made with certain reservations, until possible variation in the food quality of the subspecies is known to have no influence on plumage coloration.