Original Article

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 61, Issue 3, pp 423-433

First online:

Armaments and ornaments in the rock sparrow: a possible dual utility of a carotenoid-based feather signal

  • Matteo GriggioAffiliated withDipartimento di Biologia, Università di Padova Email author 
  • , Lorenzo SerraAffiliated withIstituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica
  • , Davide LicheriAffiliated withIstituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica
  • , Alessia MontiAffiliated withIstituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica
  • , Andrea PilastroAffiliated withDipartimento di Biologia, Università di Padova

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Females often base their mating preferences on male sexual secondary traits that are used to settle contests among males. Such traits are likely to be honest indicators of male quality if they are constantly used during costly male–male agonistic interactions. Carotenoid signals have been shown to work as a handicap because they are costly to produce. However, the role of carotenoids as “honest” signals during male contests is less clear, and it is not known whether a carotenoid-based trait can serve in both male–male competition and female choice. In this study, we studied the dual function of a carotenoid feather ornament in the rock sparrow (Petronia petronia), a bird species in which both sexes have a yellow throat patch whose size positively correlates with phenotypic measures. First, we investigated, in a field study, whether the size of a male’s yellow patch correlates with his ability to acquire a territory. Second, we tested the signal function of the yellow patch in two male–male interaction in captivity experiments. Finally, we measured female preference for males differing in throat patch size in a mate choice experiment. Our experiments revealed that the size of a male’s throat patch positively correlated with the number of nest boxes he was able to defend. Moreover, in controlled conditions, males with relatively large yellow patches had earlier access to food than those with small patches. Also, in an experiment in which a dummy rock sparrow with an experimentally manipulated yellow patch was positioned near a feeder, latency to feed by focal birds positively correlated with dummy patch size. Lastly, in a dichotomous mate choice experiment, females showed a proximity preference for males whose patch was experimentally enlarged. Taken together, these results suggest that the same carotenoid feather signal may be used in both male–male competition and female choice in this passerine bird.


Male–male competition Female choice Mutual selection Status signaling Condition-dependent traits