Social environment during molt and the expression of melanin-based plumage pigmentation in male house sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Kevin J. McGraw, James Dale, Emiko A. Mackillop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

97 Scopus citations


Evolutionary biologists have shown much recent interest in the costliness and signal content of colorful plumage displays in birds. Although many studies suggest that both carotenoid- and structurally-based plumage colors are condition-dependent indicators of health and nutritional state at the time ornamental feathers are grown, there is little experimental evidence supporting the idea that melanin pigmentation is a reliable signal of condition during molt. Instead, melanin-based ornamental coloration often reveals the competitive ability and dominance of individuals throughout the year. However, this work does not indicate which proximate environmental factors shape the expression of melanin pigmentation at the time of feather growth. Because of the link between melanin coloration and the social environment, it is possible that the development of brightly colored plumage may be associated with aggressive social interactions during feather molt. Here, we show that melanin-based ornamental coloration in male house sparrows (Passer domesticus) is correlated with the degree to which individuals interact aggressively with conspecifics during molt. Males that were dominant (beta, but not alpha) within captive social groups during molt grew larger badges than subordinates. Groups of males that had higher rates of aggression during molt grew larger badges than less aggressive triads. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that melanin pigmentation and plumage-based status badges are related to the competitive history of individuals during feather development. By coupling badge size directly with aggressive experiences during molt, birds can use their status signal to honestly indicate their likelihood of winning agonistic encounters throughout the year.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)116-122
Number of pages7
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Aggressive behavior
  • Badge size
  • Competition
  • Melanin pigmentation
  • Plumage coloration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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