Carotenoid plumage hue and chroma signal different aspects of individual and habitat quality in tits


*Corresponding author.


We hypothesized that Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus and Great Tits Parus major from low quality habitat (small woods) would have less yellow ventral plumage than those from high quality habitat (large woods) because they moult faster and/or their diet contains fewer carotenoids. They moult faster because they moult later in the season and are subject to more rapidly shortening daylengths. We tested this using a database of the plumage coloration (chroma, hue and lightness) of birds breeding in woods of different sizes, by manipulating the speed of moult in captive Blue Tits, and by counting the abundance and size of caterpillars (the major source of dietary carotenoids) in the diet of nestlings. In accordance with our hypothesis, juveniles of both species (which moult about three weeks later than adults) were about 8% less saturated in colour (lower chroma) than adults, but there was no significant difference in chroma between habitats. However, both species did differ significantly in hue between large and small woods. Blue Tits forced to moult faster in captivity, at a rate similar to that caused by a month's delay in the start of moult, had yellow flank feathers that were 32% less saturated in colour than those allowed to moult more slowly. Blue Tit nestlings in large woods consumed 47% more caterpillar flesh (per gram of faecal material voided) than those in small woods, and Great Tit pulli 81% more. When habitat effects were controlled for in ANOVAs, Blue Tits mated assortatively on the basis of flank hue and Great Tits on the basis of flank lightness. Flank colour therefore has the capacity to provide information about the potential quality of both habitats, and individual birds, to potential colonists and sexual partners.