, Volume 64, Issue 9, pp 1461-1471,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 29 May 2010

Bill color, not badge size, indicates testosterone-related information in house sparrows


The honesty of ornamental signals of quality is often argued to be enforced via costs associated with testosterone. It is still poorly understood, however, how seasonal variation of testosterone within individuals is related to the timing and extent of ornament development. Here, we studied inter- and intra-individual variability of plasma testosterone levels in a population of 150 captive male house sparrows (Passer domesticus) through the course of a full year. We further analyzed the relationship between plasma testosterone levels and two sexually dimorphic ornaments: badge size and bill coloration. Also, because of a known negative relation between molt and circulating testosterone levels, we analyzed the relationship between ornamentation and molt status during the fall. We found that testosterone levels increased towards the breeding season and decreased before the onset of annual molt. However, within individuals, relative testosterone titers demonstrated low repeatability between seasons. Plasma testosterone levels were not correlated with badge size in any season but were correlated strongly with bill coloration during all periods, except the breeding season when variation in bill color was low. Finally, we found that bill coloration strongly correlated with molt status during fall. Our results indicate that bill coloration, not badge size, is the best ornamental indicator of a “running average” of male testosterone in house sparrows and therefore the best potential indicator of qualities and/or behavioral strategies associated with testosterone.

Communicated by: K. McGraw