Red-winged blackbirds Agelaius phoeniceus use carotenoid and melanin pigments to color their epaulets

Kevin McGraw, Kazumasa Wakamatsu, Anne B. Clark, Ken Yasukawa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Over the past three decades, the red-winged blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus has served as a model species for studies of sexual selection and the evolution of ornamental traits. Particular attention has been paid to the role of the colorful red-and-yellow epaulets that are striking in males but reduced in females and juveniles. It has been assumed that carotenoid pigments bestow the brilliant red and yellow colors on epaulet feathers, but this has never been tested biochemically. Here, we use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to describe the pigments present in these colorful feathers. Two red ketocarotenoids (astaxanthin and canthaxanthin) are responsible for the bright red hue of epaulets. Two yellow dietary precursors pigments (lutein and zeaxanthin) are also present in moderately high concentrations in red feathers. After extracting carotenoids, however, red feathers remained deep brown in color. HPLC tests show that melanin pigments (primarily eumelanin) are also found in the red-pigmented barbules of epaulet feathers, at an 'approximately equal concentration to carotenoids. This appears to be an uncommon feature of carotenoid-based ornamental plumage in birds, as was shown by comparable analyses of melanin in the yellow feathers of male American goldfinches Carduelis tristis and the red feathers of northern cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis, in which we detected virtually no melanins. Furthermore, the yellow bordering feathers of male epaulets are devoid of carotenoids (except when tinged with a carotenoid-derived pink coloration on occasion) and instead are comprised of a high concentration of primarily phaeomelanin pigments. The dual pigment composition of red epaulet feathers and the melanin-only basis for yellow coloration may have important implications for the honesty-reinforcing mechanisms underlying ornamental epaulets in red-winged blackbirds, and shed light on the difficulties researchers have had to date in characterizing the signaling function of this trait. As in several other birds, the melanic nature of feathers may explain why epaulets are used largely to settle aggressive contests rather than to attract mates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)543-550
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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