Melanin is a common pigment in the plumage of birds, but the extent to which its deposition in feathers is condition dependent and can be used as a reliable signal of quality and reproductive performance is still much debated. In addition, the existence and function of melanin ornaments in female birds or in birds of different age classes has rarely been addressed. We studied the size and color of 4 melanin ornaments in the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), a woodpecker, and found that the plumage patches became larger or darker with age class in both sexes. Consistent with the partly reversed sex roles of Northern Flickers and sexual selection in both sexes, several melanin ornaments were the same size in males and females and were correlated with body size or body condition. There was assortative pairing according to melanin ornaments when controlling for age, and 1 or more ornaments predicted laying date or clutch size of the pair independent of age. The results suggest that melanin ornaments in Northern Flickers may contain multiple messages and be used as cues of quality.
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