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The mask of seniority? A neglected age indicator in house sparrows Passer domesticus


  • Shinichi Nakagawa,

  • Terry Burke

S. Nakagawa, (correspondence) and T. Burke, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK. Email:


In many species, females prefer older males as social and genetic mates, and male secondary sexual traits often act as age indictor mechanisms. It has been reported that almost all the extra-pair paternity in one population and recently in another population of house sparrows Passer domesticus, was achieved by males more than one year old. We aimed to determine whether there is a morphological trait that distinguishes yearlings from older males in house sparrows. Here, we report that such a trait – the extent of black around a male's eye, which we term the ‘mask’ or ‘mask of seniority’, is a reasonable indicator of male age, being adequate to assign yearlings and older males correctly 81% of the time. It is well known that a male's black throat patch, often called the ‘badge’ or ‘badge of status’, signals fighting ability. We speculate that badge size signals dominance, and is therefore often used in male–male competition, whereas mask size may play a key role as an age indicator mechanism, potentially used in female choice. It is surprising that this important trait evaded researchers’ attention during 20 years of house sparrows being a model organism for sexual selection.