Relationships between plumage coloration, diet diversity, and winter body condition in the Lesser Goldfinch


Bright and colorful plumage is thought to be an honest signal of individual quality in birds because consuming high-quality forage results in more colorful plumage. To gain insight into the ecological and evolutionary context of the relationship between color, body condition, and diet, we studied a mostly urban population of Lesser Goldfinches (Spinus psaltria). We collected body measurements and digital photographs of plumage, as well as feathers and blood of goldfinches during three winters (2009–2012) in northern Nevada, USA. We analyzed the body tissues (feathers and blood) for stable isotope values of carbon and nitrogen to infer the diets of individual goldfinches, and quantified CIELAB color space values of chroma, brightness, and hue of plumage from the digital images. We then examined the relationships between color values and body condition, and color and stable isotope values. We found that the brightness (L* value) of the back plumage was correlated with both body condition and with stable isotope values of nitrogen (δ15N) in the winter diet. Furthermore, stable isotope analyses of both feathers and blood showed temporal differences in diet. However, hue and chroma, which are color values that are thought to more directly represent feather carotenoid content, were not related to body condition or diet. Our results suggest that the foraging ecology of Lesser Goldfinches changes over time, and that, in winter, plumage color values that are putatively indicative of carotenoid content do not seem to be an honest signal of individual quality as measured by body condition.


Beziehungen zwischen Gefiederfärbung, Nahrungsvielfalt und Körperkondition im Winter bei Mexikozeisigen Spinus psaltria

Glänzendes und buntes Gefieder bei Vögeln stellt wahrscheinlich ein ehrliches Signal individueller Qualität dar, da das Verzehren hochwertiger Nahrung in bunterem Gefieder resultiert. Um Einblicke in den ökologischen und evolutionären Kontext der Beziehung zwischen Farbe, Körperkondition und Ernährung zu gewinnen, haben wir eine größtenteils städtische Population des Mexikozeisigs (Spinus psaltria) untersucht. Über drei Winter (2009–2012) haben wir im Norden Nevadas (USA) Körpermaße ermittelt, Digitalfotos des Gefieders aufgenommen sowie Federn und Blut von Mexikozeisigen gesammelt. Wir haben die Körpergewebe (Federn und Blut) hinsichtlich stabiler Isotopenwerte von Kohlenstoff und Stickstoff analysiert, um Rückschlüsse auf die Nahrung individueller Mexikozeisige zu ziehen, und haben anhand der Gefiederfotos Farbsättigung, Helligkeit und Farbton auf der Basis des CIELAN-Farbraums quantifiziert. Dann haben wir die Beziehungen zwischen diesen Farbwerten und der Körperkondition bzw. den stabilen Isotopenwerten untersucht. Wir fanden, dass die Helligkeit (L*-Wert) des Rückengefieders mit der Köperkondition sowie mit den Werten stabiler Stickstoffisotope (15 N) in der Winternahrung korreliert war. Des Weiteren zeigten die Isotopenanalysen von Federn sowie Blut zeitliche Unterschiede in der Nahrung auf. Farbton und Farbsättigung standen jedoch nicht in Bezug zur Körperkondition oder Ernährung, obwohl sie den Carotinoidgehalt von Federn wahrscheinlich unmittelbarer anzeigen. Unsere Ergebnisse deuten darauf hin, dass sich die Nahrungsökologie von Mexikozeisigen über die Zeit verändert und dass im Winter Gefiederfarbwerte, die vermeintlich den Carotinoidgehalt anzeigen, offenbar kein ehrliches Signal individueller Qualität (wie anhand der Köperkondition gemessen) darstellen.

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We are grateful to landowners who generously provided access to their bird feeders, to the citizen scientists that reported bird sightings, and student volunteers that aided in fieldwork. We thank the UNR Honors Undergraduate Research Award to MFC for financial support. We appreciate useful feedback from the UNR Evol Doers and two anonymous reviewers. All research protocols were conducted under appropriate federal and state permits, and reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the University of Nevada, Reno (protocol no. 2008-0383).

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Correspondence to Jessi L. Brown.

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Communicated by C. Guglielmo.

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Frincke-Craig, M., Brown, J.L., Briggs, C.W. et al. Relationships between plumage coloration, diet diversity, and winter body condition in the Lesser Goldfinch. J Ornithol 156, 143–151 (2015) doi:10.1007/s10336-014-1130-0

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  • Body condition
  • Color
  • Diet
  • Spinus psaltria
  • Stable isotopes
  • Temporal variation