Carotenoid-based plumage coloration in golden-crowned kinglets Regulus satrapa: Pigment characterization and relationships with migratory timing and condition

Celia K S Chui, Kevin McGraw, Stéphanie M. Doucet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Carotenoid-based ornamental coloration has long been proposed to honestly signal quality due to its dependence on individual condition. Because migration can be one of the most stressful periods of an animal's annual cycle, developing colourful plumage may be particularly challenging for species in which migration and moult periods overlap or occur sequentially. The purpose of this study was to investigate pigmentary and condition-dependent bases of carotenoid colour variation in a small migratory passerine, the golden-crowned kinglet Regulus satrapa (Family Regulidae). We captured 186 male and female kinglets of various ages during fall migration in southwestern Ontario, Canada and recorded arrival date, body condition index, fat and pectoral muscle scores, wing mite infestation, and feather growth rate as measures of condition. We quantified crown coloration using reflectance spectrometry and analyzed feather carotenoids using high-performance liquid chromatography. Yellow crown feathers of female kinglets contained only yellow hydroxycarotenoids, whereas orange feathers of males harboured a suite of eight carotenoid pigments. Males with longer wavelength orange crown hues deposited greater concentrations of ketocarotenoids, especially canthaxanthin. Female kinglets with longer wavelength crown hues and males with longer wavelength crown hues and more saturated crown coloration left for migration earlier in the year. Females with longer wavelength crown hues had fewer feather mites and tended to be in better condition. However, male kinglets with more saturated coloration possessed smaller pectoral muscles. This is the first study to identify plumage carotenoids in this North American bird family and to determine the pigmentary basis for both inter- and intrasexual colour variation. Our results provide further support for the condition-dependence of carotenoid coloration and suggest that ornamental elaboration in both sexes may encode information about fall condition and migratory performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-322
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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