A variety of observations indicate that the carotenoid-based coloration of male House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) is an honest signal of quality. Plumage redness in this species positively reveals male nutritional condition, over-winter survival, and nest attentiveness. As a result, in the breeding season, male House Finches with brighter ornamental plumage are preferred by females as social mates over males with drabber plumage. In the nonbreeding season, however, bright red plumage does not seem to confer an advantage in aggressive interactions, as males with drabber plumage tend to dominate males with brighter plumage. We investigated this apparent paradox by conducting a breeding-season dominance experiment using captive males. We paired unfamiliar males of contrasting plumage brightness in a series of dominance trials during the breeding season and found that drabber males were dominant to brighter males in competition for access to food. Furthermore, in two captive flocks of males, plumage brightness was significantly negatively associated with social dominance. Although we have no conclusive evidence to explain why drab male House Finches are dominant to bright males throughout the year, we believe that motivational asymmetry may contribute to the observed negative correlation between signal intensity and signaler quality (“negatively correlated handicap”). Drab males may be more willing to compete for access to food or to females than are bright males because of the nutritional and/or mating disadvantages from which they suffer.
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