Does color banding influence mate choice in birds?

Inspired by an interesting post by @vampireapologist!

I assert that color banding does not influence bird behavior (including mate preference) in such a way that it limits our ability to assess the system, with a few exceptions. For most birds, mate choice is a complex topic encompassing everything from assessment of diet-derived pigmentation, gestural display, vocal performance, However, no matter what manipulation you perform, it’s always important to verify the assumptions you make!

Interestingly, the few species that have been shown to have their behavior detectably altered by color bands are birds that have a strong preference for ornaments emitting in the UV spectrum! Two commonly re-occurring examples of this are zebra finches (e.g. Burley 1986, Jennions 1998) and bluethroats (Johnsen et al. 1997). As to the red-winged blackbirds, one study did find that red color bands affected male territory maintenance, but not in the way you might expect (Mets and Weatherhead 1991). There is a huge body of RWBL behavioral work out there (see Yasukawa, Searcy) establishing that in this species, the main quality assessed by females is the quality of the nesting territory defended by the male. Males maintain territories by assessing the quality of nearby males by investigating their display and epaulettes, a purportedly honest signal*. Adding the red color bands to males actually resulted in them losing their territory at a higher rate—the honesty of the signal was corrupted because the degree of ornamentation was no longer proportional to competitive ability!

Notably, these patterns are the exception rather than the rule. Numerous studies of mate choice elucidating everything from the nature of cooperative breeding societies to the way motor skill is encoded in song or the prevalence of territory-based rather than harem-based territory defense exist and have been successfully executed with the use of color bands! We’re talking dozens and dozens of species studied in this manner. Some favorites: fairy wrens (e.g. Mulder et al. 1994), barn swallows (Moller 1993), house sparrows (Bonneaud et al. 2006), satin bowerbirds (e.g. Borgia and Collis 1989), Montezuma oropendola (Webster 1994), pied flycatchers (Lampe and Espmark 2002), American kestrel (Bortolotti and Iko 1992)… The list goes on and on!

Literature Cited 

Tirelessly they flew on and on, and tirelessly she kept pace. She felt a fierce joy possessing her, that she could command these immortal presences. And she rejoiced in her blood and flesh, in the rough pine bark she felt next to her skin, in the beat of her heart and the life of all her senses, and in the hunger she was feeling now, and in the presence of her sweet-voiced bluethroat dæmon, and in the earth below her and the lives of every creature, plant and animal both; and she delighted in being of the same substance as them, and in knowing that when she died her flesh would nourish other lives as they had nourished her.
—  From the Witch Queen Ruta Skadi, Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

If you visit Nome, Alaska, this summer, head out Kougarok Road and find solitude at the BLM Salmon Lake Campground. This tucked-away little gem, located at mile 40, is popular with locals and visitors alike.  

The primitive campground features six campsites, fire rings, picnic tables, bear-proof trash bins, a natural boat launch and a new outhouse built in 2015. What you WON’T find: lines of RVs, dump stations or fees. The campground opens in late June and remains open until October, depending on snow and road conditions. While in the area, look for the historic Wild Goose Pipeline, a wooden structure built to carry water for sluicing from Grand Central River to nearby claims during the gold rush.

Salmon Lake is spawning grounds for the northernmost run of sockeye salmon in the U.S. The lake also contains Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, least cisco, round whitefish and burbot, so bring a fly rod. Birders, bring your binocs. Bluethroat, red-necked grebe, red-throated loon, long-tailed duck, red-breasted merganser, mew gull and glaucous gull may be spotted here.

A solid #mypubliclandsroadtrip camping pick for solitude, endless views and amazing wildlife!

Photos courtesy of Evelyn Mervine