Brighter yellow blue tits make better parents

J. C. Senar , J. Figuerola , J. Pascual


Whether or not bird ornaments are a signal for direct (e.g. good parents) or indirect (e.g. good genes) benefits to prospective partners in sexual selection is controversial. Carotene coloration in Parus species is directly related to the ingestion of caterpillars, so that a brightly carotene–coloured tit may be signalling its ability to find caterpillars, a main high–quality food source for good fledgling development, and hence its parental abilities. If carotene–based plumage coloration is related to the good–parent hypothesis, we predict that yellow plumage brightness of tit fathers should be positively correlated to their investment in offspring provisioning. Here, we use cross–fostering experiments in blue tits (Parus caeruleus) to show that chick development (as measured by tarsus length) is related to yellowness of the foster father, but not to that of the genetic parents. Using these data, we were able to measure, for the first time to our knowledge, the separate contribution of genetic and environmental factors (i.e. parental plumage coloration) to chick development, and hence parental investment. Our data, which relate carotenoid coloration to models of good parents, and data from other authors, which relate ultraviolet coloration to good–genes models, stress that different kinds of coloration within an individual may provide different units of information to prospective females.