, Volume 137, Issue 1, pp 148–152 | Cite as

Carotenoid-based colour expression is determined early in nestling life

  • Patrick S. FitzeEmail author
  • Barbara Tschirren
  • Heinz Richner
Behavioural Ecology


Carotenoid-based colours are widespread in animals and are used as signals in intra- and interspecific communication. In nestling birds, the carotenoids used for feather pigmentation may derive via three pathways: (1) via maternal transfer to egg yolk; (2) via paternal feeds early after hatching when females are mainly brooding; or (3) via feeds from both parents later in nestling life. We analysed the relative importance of the proposed carotenoid sources in a field experiment on great tit nestlings (Parus major). In a within-brood design we supplemented nestlings with carotenoids shortly after hatching, later on in the nestling life, or with a placebo. We show that the carotenoid-based colour expression of nestlings is modified maximally during the first 6 days after hatching. It reveals that the observed variation in carotenoid-based coloration is based only on mechanisms acting during a short period of time in early nestling life. The experiment further suggests that paternally derived carotenoids are the most important determinants of nestling plumage colour.


Carotenoids Honest signalling Maternal effects Paternal effects Plumage coloration 



We thank Hoffmann-La Roche, Basel and Alfred Giger for kindly providing carotenoid and placebo beadlets, Kurt Bernhard for helpful advice, and Jean-Daniel Charrière and Peter Fluri for providing the bee larvae. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 31-53956.98 to H. Richner) and the Swiss Bundesamt für Bildung und Wissenschaft (grant BBW Nr. 01.0254 to P.S. Fitze). The experiment was conducted under a licence provided by the Ethical Committee of the Office of Agriculture of the Canton of Bern, Switzerland.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick S. Fitze
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Barbara Tschirren
    • 1
  • Heinz Richner
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Zoology, Evolutionary Ecology DivisionUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  2. 2.Ecology LaboratoryUniversity Pierre & Marie Curie – CNRSParisFrance

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