Back to the future: does previously grown ornamental colouration in male House Finches reveal mate quality at the time of pair formation?

Kathryn N. DePinto, Kevin J. McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animals use diverse signal types (e.g. visual, auditory) to honestly advertise their genotypic and/or phenotypic quality to prospective mates or rivals. Behavioural displays and other dynamically updateable signals (e.g. songs, vibrations) can reliably reveal an individual’s quality in real-time, but it is unclear whether more fixed traits like feather colouration, which is often developed months before breeding, still reveal an individual’s quality at the time of signal use. To address this gap, we investigated if various indices of health and condition—including body condition (residual body mass), poxvirus infection, degree of habitat urbanization, and circulating levels of ketones, glucose, vitamins, and carotenoids—were related to the expression of male plumage colouration at the start of the spring breeding season in wild male House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), a species in which many studies have demonstrated a link between plumage redness and the health and condition of individuals at the time the feathers are grown in late summer and autumn. We found that, at the time of pair formation, plumage hue was correlated with body condition, such that redder males were in better condition (i.e. higher residual mass). Also, as in previous studies, we found that rural males had redder plumage; however, urban males had more saturated plumage. In sum, these results reveal that feather colouration developed long before breeding still can be indicative to choosy mates of a male’s current condition and suggest that females who prefer to mate with redder males may also gain proximate material benefits (e.g. better incubation provisioning) by mating with these individuals in good current condition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)977-985
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Ornithology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • Condition-dependent signaling
  • Haemorhous mexicanus
  • Honest advertisement
  • Mate selection
  • Plumage colouration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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