Although the function of ornamental traits in males has been the focus of intensive research for decades, expression of such traits in females has received much less study. Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) display structurally based ultraviolet/blue and melanin-based chestnut plumage, and in males this plumage coloration is related to both reproductive success and competitive ability. Compared to males, female bluebirds show a subdued expression of blue and chestnut ornamental coloration, and we used a combination of an aviary nutritional-stress experiment and four years of field data to test the hypothesis that coloration functions as a signal of female quality. First, we tested the effect of food intake on expression of structural and melanin coloration in female eastern bluebirds to determine whether structural or melanin coloration are condition-dependent traits. Females that were given ad libitum access to food displayed more ornamented structural coloration than females on a food-restricted diet, but there was no effect of the experiment on melanin ornamentation. Second, we used field data to assess whether female ornamentation correlated with measures of mate quality and parental effort. The structural coloration of females predicted first egg date, maternal provisioning rates, and measures of reproductive success. These data indicate that structural coloration is dependent on nutritional condition and suggest that sexual selection is acting on structurally based plumage coloration in female eastern bluebirds.
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Vol. 59 • No. 8