Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 62, Issue 10, pp 1543–1550

Plumage characteristics, reproductive investment and assortative mating in tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor

  • Pierre-Paul Bitton
  • Russell D. Dawson
  • Courtney L. Ochs
Original Paper


Elaborate ornamental plumage has been associated with various measures of individual quality in many species of birds. Male plumage characteristics, which have been relatively well studied, have been shown to reflect past reproductive investment, as well as the potential for reproductive investment in the current breeding attempt. In contrast, the signalling functions of female traits remain largely unexplored. In this study, we investigated the relationship between plumage attributes of breeding adult tree swallows and past reproductive investment, current reproductive investment and social mate pairing strategy. Both males and older females possess metallic green to metallic blue iridescent plumage on their dorsal surface, making this a suitable species for this type of investigation. We did not find any effects of past reproductive investment and success on the plumage attributes of returning breeders. In contrast, female plumage hue covaried with fledging success, and female plumage brightness was positively associated with mean clutch egg mass. In addition, we found that social pairs mated assortatively with respect to plumage brightness. We argue that since plumage characteristics vary with age in both male and female tree swallows, plumage attributes in this species are indicative of breeding experience and may be honest signals of quality. Positive assortative pairing could be the result of mutual mate choice or intra-sexual competition for nest sites by both males and females.


Assortative mating Reproductive investment Plumage hue Plumage reflectance 


  1. Amundsen T (2000) Why are female birds ornamented? Trends Ecol Evol 15:149–155PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Amundsen T, Pärn H (2006) Female coloration: review of functional and non-functional hypotheses. In: Hill GE, McGraw KJ (eds) Bird coloration. Vol 1, Mechanisms and measurements. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 280–345Google Scholar
  3. Amundsen T, Forsgren E, Hansen LTT (1997) On the function of female ornaments: male bluethroats prefer colourful females. Proc Roy Soc Lond B 264:1579–1586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andersson S, Örnborg J, Andersson M (1998) Ultraviolet sexual dimorphism and assortative mating in blue tits. Proc Roy Soc Lond B 265:445–450CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ardia DR, Clotfelter ED (2007) Individual quality and age affect responses to an energetic constraint in a cavity-nesting bird. Behav Ecol 18:259–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ardia DR, Wasson MF, Winkler DW (2006) Individual quality and food availability determine yolk and egg mass and egg composition in the tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor. J Avian Biol 37:252–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barber CA, Robertson RJ, Boag PT (1996) The high frequency of extra-pair paternity in tree swallows is not an artefact of nestboxes. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 38:425–430CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bennett GF (1970) Simple technique for making avian blood smears. Can J Zool 48:585–586Google Scholar
  9. Bitton P-P, Dawson RD (2008) Age-related differences in plumage characteristics of male tree swallows: hue and brightness signal different aspects of individual quality. J Avian Biol 39 (in press)Google Scholar
  10. Bitton P-P, O’Brien EL, Dawson RD (2007) Plumage brightness and age predict male extra-pair fertilization success in tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor. Anim Behav 74:1777–1784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Brown WD (1993) The cause of size-assortative mating in the leaf beetle Trirhabda canadensis (Coleoptera, Chrysomelidae). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 33:151–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Burley N (1977) Parental investment, mate choice, and mate quality. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 74:3476–3479PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Burley N (1983) The meaning of assortative mating. Ethol Sociobiol 4:191–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Buston PM, Emlen ST (2003) Cognitive process underlying human mate choice: the relationship between self-perception and mate preference in western society. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100:8805–8810PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Clutton-Brock TH (1984) Reproductive effort and terminal investment in iteroparous species. Am Nat 123:212–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Creighton E (2001) Mate acquisition in the European blackbird and its implication for sexual strategies. Ethol Ecol Evol 13:247–260Google Scholar
  17. Delhey K, Kempenaers B (2006) Age differences in blue tit Parus caeruleus plumage colour: within-individual changes or colour-biased survival? J Avian Biol 37:339–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. De Steven D (1978) The influence of age on the breeding biology of the tree swallow Iridoprocne bicolor. Ibis 120:516–523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Doucet SM (2002) Structural plumage coloration, male body size, and body condition in the blue-black grassquit. Condor 104:30–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Doucet SM, Shawkey MD, Hill GE, Montgomerie R (2006) Iridescent plumage in satin bowerbirds: structure, mechanisms and nanostructural predictors of individual variation in colour. J Exp Biol 209:380–390PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ferrer M, Penteriani V (2003) A process for pair formation leading to assortative mating: passive age assortative mating by habitat heterogeneity. Anim Behav 66:137–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Friedl TP, Edler R (2005) Stress-dependent trade-off between immunological condition and reproductive performance in the polygynous red bishop (Euplectes orix). Evol Ecol 19:221–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gil D, Graves JA, Hazon N, Wells A (1999) Male attractiveness and differential testosterone investment in zebra finch eggs. Science 286:126–128PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Griggio M, Valera F, Casas A, Pilastro A (2005) Males prefer ornamented females: a field experiment of male choice in the rock sparrow. Anim Behav 69:1243–1250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hanssen SA, Folstad I, Erikstad KE (2006) White plumage reflects individual quality in female eiders. Anim Behav 71:337–343CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hill GE (2006) Environmental regulation of ornamental coloration. In: Hill GE, McGraw KJ (eds) Bird coloration. Vol 1, Mechanisms and measurements. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 507–560Google Scholar
  27. Hill GE, Doucet SM, Buchholz R (2005) The effect of coccidial infection on iridescent plumage coloration in wild turkeys. Anim Behav 69:387–394CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hunt S, Cuthill IC, Bennett ATD, Griffiths R (1999) Preferences for ultraviolet partners in the blue tit. Anim Behav 58:809–815PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hussell DJT (1983) Age and plumage color in female tree swallows. J Field Ornithol 54:312–318Google Scholar
  30. Hyman J, Hugues M, Searcy WA, Nowicki S (2004) Individual variation in the strength of territory defence in male song sparrows: correlates of age, territory tenure, and neighbour aggressiveness. Behaviour 141:15–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Johnstone RA, Reynolds JD, Deutsch JC (1996) Mutual mate choice and sex differences in choosiness. Evolution 50:1382–1391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Keyser AJ, Hill GE (1999) Condition-dependent variation in the blue-ultraviolet coloration of a structurally based plumage ornament. Proc Roy Soc Lond B 266:771–777CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Keyser AJ, Hill GE (2000) Structurally based plumage coloration is an honest signal of quality in male blue grosbeak. Behav Ecol 11:202–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kodric-Brown A, Brown JH (1984) Truth in advertising: the kind of traits favored by sexual selection. Am Nat 124:309–323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Komdeur J, Oorebeek M, van Overveld T, Cuthill IC (2005) Mutual ornamentation, age, and reproductive performance in the European starling. Behav Ecol 16:805–817CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Landmann A, Kollinsky C (1995) Territory defence in black redstarts, Phoenicurus ochruros, effects of intruder and owner age. Ethology 101:121–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Leffelaar D, Robertson RJ (1985) Nest usurpation and female competition for breeding opportunities by tree swallows. Wilson Bull 97:221–224Google Scholar
  38. Lifjeld JT, Dunn PO, Robertson RJ, Boag PT (1993) Extra-pair paternity in monogamous tree swallows. Anim Behav 45:213–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lombardo MP (1986) A possible case of adult intraspecific killing in the tree swallow. Condor 88:112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lombardo MP (1991) Sexual differences in parental effort during the nestling period in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Auk 108:393–404Google Scholar
  41. McCarty JP (2002) The number of visits to the nest by parents is an accurate measure of food delivered to nestlings in tree swallows. J Field Ornithol 73:9–14Google Scholar
  42. McGraw KJ, Mackillop EA, Dale J, Haubner ME (2002) Different colors reveal different information: how nutritional stress affects the expression of melanin- and structurally based ornamental plumage. J Exp Biol 205:3747–3755PubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Norušis MJ (2000) SPSS advanced statistics user’s guide. SPSS Inc, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  44. O’Brien EL, Dawson RD (2005) Perceived risk of ectoparasitism reduces primary reproductive investment in tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor. J Avian Biol 36:269–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. O’Brien EL, Dawson RD (2007) Context-dependent genetic benefits of extra-pair mate choice in a socially monogamous passerine. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 61:775–782CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Prum RO (2006) Anatomy, physics, and evolution of avian structural colors. In: Hill GE, McGraw KJ (eds) Bird coloration. Vol 1, Mechanisms and measurements. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 295–355Google Scholar
  47. Robertson RJ, Rendell WB (2001) A long-term study of reproductive performance in tree swallows: the influence of age and senescence on output. J Anim Ecol 70:1014–1031CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Robertson RJ, Gibbs HL, Stuchbury BJ (1986) Spitefulness, altruism, and the cost of aggression: evidence against superterritoriality in tree swallows. Condor 88:123–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Robertson RJ, Stutchbury BJ, Cohen RR (1992) Tree swallow. In: Poole A, Stettenheim P, Gill F (eds) Birds of North America, No 11. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. and Academy of Natural Sciences, PhiladelphiaGoogle Scholar
  50. Rohde PA, Johnsen A, Lifjeld JT (1999) Female plumage coloration in the bluethroat: no evidence for an indicator of maternal quality. Condor 101:96–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rutstein AN, Gilbert L, Slater PJB, Graves JA (2004) Male attractiveness and primary resource allocation in zebra finch. Anim Behav 68:1087–1094CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sheldon BC, Merilä J, Qvarnström A, Gustafsson L, Ellengren H (1997) Paternal genetic contribution to offspring condition predicted by size of male secondary sexual character. Proc Roy Soc Lond B 264:297–302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Shutler D, Clarck RG, Fehr C, Diamond AW (2006) Time and recruitment costs as currencies in manipulation studies on the costs of reproduction. Ecology 87:2938–2946PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Siefferman L, Hill GE (2003) Structural and melanin coloration indicate parental effort and reproductive success in male eastern bluebirds. Behav Ecol 14:855–861CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Siefferman L, Hill GE (2005a) Male eastern bluebirds trade future ornamentation for current reproductive investment. Biol Lett 1:208–211PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Siefferman L, Hill GE (2005b) Evidence for sexual selection on structural plumage coloration in female eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis). Evolution 59:1819–1828PubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Szigeti B, Török J, Hegyi G, Rosivall B, Hargitai R, Szöllösi E, Michl G (2007) Egg quality and parental ornamentation in the blue tit Parus caeruleus. J Avian Biol 38:105–112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Uller T, Eklof J, Andersson S (2005) Female egg investment in relation to male sexual traits and the potential for transgenerational effect in sexual selection. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 57:584–590CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Velando A, Drummond H, Torres R (2006) Senescent birds redouble reproductive effort when ill: confirmation of the terminal investment hypothesis. Proc Roy Soc Lond B 273:1443–1448CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Whittingham LA, Dunn PO (2000) Offspring sex ration in tree swallows: females in better condition produce more sons. Mol Ecol 9:1123–1129PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wiggins DA (1990) Sources of variation in egg mass of tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor. Ornis Scand 21:157–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Williamson KA, Surai PF, Graves JA (2006) Yolk antioxidants and mate attractiveness in the zebra finch. Funct Ecol 20:354–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Winkler DW, Allen PE (1995) Effects of handicapping on female condition and reproduction in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Auk 112:737–747Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Pierre-Paul Bitton
    • 1
  • Russell D. Dawson
    • 1
  • Courtney L. Ochs
    • 1
  1. 1.Ecosystem Science and Management ProgramUniversity of Northern British ColumbiaPrince GeorgeCanada

Personalised recommendations