Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 56, Issue 5, pp 491–497 | Cite as

Yolk testosterone organizes behavior and male plumage coloration in house sparrows (Passer domesticus)

  • Rosemary StrasserEmail author
  • Hubert Schwabl
Original Paper


Vertebrate eggs contain maternal steroid hormones in their yolks; and in avian species the concentration of these steroids vary within and among clutches. The organizational actions of these variable doses of maternal steroids in the avian egg, analogous to those regulating the development of sexually dimorphic traits, are little explored. In this study, we examined the organizational effects of yolk testosterone in the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, a sexually dichromatic passerine bird in which males are characterized by the presence of a throat patch or “badge” of black feathers that varies in size among males. We injected a physiological dose of testosterone or vehicle into eggs in the field, removed nestlings, and hand-raised them in the laboratory. At 5 months of age, we investigated treatment effects on plumage and behavior. Males that hatched from testosterone-injected eggs developed a larger badge than males that hatched from vehicle-injected (control) eggs. However, testosterone did not induce the expression of a badge in females. In staged dyadic encounters, both males and females hatched from testosterone-injected eggs were more successful at obtaining and defending a food source than individuals of the same sex hatched from control eggs. The results suggest that variable concentrations of maternal testosterone in the eggs of the house sparrow organize the expression of a plumage trait in males and behavior in both sexes.


Yolk steroid Maternal effect Aggressive behavior Individual variation Plumage Organizational action 



We thank Bryce Duskin and Matt Leland for help in scoring behavior tapes and Chris Clark for assistance in raising the sparrows. Diego Gil, Marion Petrie, and Michael Webster offered helpful discussions and comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (MH 4987 to H.S., HD F32HD08542 to R.S.) and the Harry Franck Guggenheim Foundation (to H.S.).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Nebraska at OmahaOmahaUSA
  2. 2.Center for Reproductive Biology, School of Biological SciencesWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

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