Age-dependent relationships between coloration and reproduction in a species exhibiting delayed plumage maturation in females


A. B. Bentz, Biology Dept, Appalachian State Univ., 572 Rivers St., Boone, NC 28608, USA. E-mail:


Males of many bird species exhibit delayed plumage maturation (DPM), a condition in which young individuals display an immature plumage. Several adaptive hypotheses have been suggested for the signaling utility of DPM in males. Tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor, however, are one of the few bird species to exhibit DPM in females, but not in males. Few studies have focused on the age-dependent signaling function of female plumage traits due to the uncommon nature of DPM in females. Therefore, we used reflectance spectrometry and scanning electron microscopy of sub-adult (melanin-based brown) and adult (iridescent-blue structural) female tree swallows to characterize plumage coloration. Next, we asked whether variation in plumage coloration in females reflects condition and reproductive performance between and within age classes. We found that older females were in better body condition and laid eggs earlier in the season compared to young females; however, average egg mass and reproductive success (number of offspring fledged and offspring condition) did not differ between age classes. There were significant relationships indicating that young females with more-ornamented (darker brown melanin) plumage laid smaller eggs, but hatched eggs earlier in the season leading to nestlings in better condition compared to less-ornamented young females. Older females that were more ornamented (brighter, greater blue chroma, and lower hues in iridescent plumage) laid heavier eggs, but ornamentation was negatively associated with immune function, health, and reproductive success. Together, these data suggest that female ornamentation reflects reproductive performance and that there are complicated relationships between plumage coloration, condition, and reproductive performance that ultimately influence reproductive success.