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Age differences in blue tit Parus caeruleus plumage colour: within-individual changes or colour-biased survival?


  • Kaspar Delhey,

  • Bart Kempenaers

K. Delhey and B. Kempenaers, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen P.O. Box 1564, D-82305 Starnberg, Germany. Present address of K. Delhey: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Vogelwarte Radolfzell, Schlossallee 2, D-78315 Radolfzell. E-mail:


In many species of passerine birds yearlings display a less elaborate version of the adult secondary sexual traits, but the causes of such differences in ornamentation are not always well understood. We studied age-related changes in blue tit Parus caeruleus UV/blue structural crown coloration, a sexually selected trait. In our Austrian study population, older blue tits, irrespective of sex, displayed on average a more ultraviolet (lower hue, higher UV chroma), more chromatic and brighter crown coloration than yearlings. This age dichromatism was caused by within-individual changes in the expression of crown coloration between years since males and females became more UV, more chromatic and brighter as they aged. Colour biased survival did not contribute to the observed pattern of age dichromatism since crown coloration was largely unrelated to overwinter survival. Between-year repeatability of crown colour was significant for most colour variables but low in general, and lower for females than for males. In the blue tit, yearling males might benefit from being less ornamented by avoiding adult aggression but at the expense of sexual attractiveness. Adaptive explanations of blue tit age dichromatism should however take into account that age effects were of similar magnitude in males and females. This suggests that both male and female yearlings could benefit from being less ornamented and hence that sexual selection might be acting on both sexes simultaneously in this species.