red-winged blackbird

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Red winged blackbird, brewing botanicals, and buttercups for Lauren. Thanks so much for letting me do this tattoo, lady, it was such a pleasure.

Fall foliage lights up the lakeshore at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Along with changing leaves, late season sunflowers provide a colorful contrast to red-wing blackbirds that swoop and dart through grasses. The refuge protects a wide stretch of the Rio Grande river where sandhill cranes, geese and other waterfowl spend the winter each year. Photo courtesy of Robert Dunn via USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System.

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