Like males of many bird species, male House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) have patches of feathers with ornamental coloration that are due to carotenoid pigments. Within populations, male House Finches vary in expression of ornamental coloration from pale yellow to bright red, which previous research suggested was the result of variation in types and amounts of carotenoid pigments deposited in feathers. Here we used improved analytical techniques to describe types and amounts of carotenoid pigments present in that plumage. We then used those data to make comparisons of carotenoid composition of feathers of male House Finches at three levels: among individual males with different plumage hue and saturation, between age groups of males from the same population, and between males from two subspecies that differ in extent of ventral carotenoid pigmentation (patch size): large-patched C. m. frontalis from coastal California and small-patched C. m. griscomi from Guerrero, Mexico. In all age groups and populations, the ornamental plumage coloration of male House Finches resulted from the same 13 carotenoid pigments, with 3-hydroxy echinenone and lutein being the most abundant carotenoid pigments. The composition of carotenoids in feathers suggested that House Finches are capable of metabolic transformation of dietary forms of carotenoids. The hue of male plumage depended on component carotenoids, their relative concentrations, and total concentration of all carotenoids. Most 4-keto (red) carotenoids were positively correlated with plumage redness, and most yellow carotenoid pigments were negatively associated with plumage redness, although the strength of the relationship for specific carotenoid pigments varied among age groups and subspecies. Using age and subspecies as factors and concentration of each component carotenoid as dependent variables in a MANOVA, we found a distinctive pigment profile for each age group within each subspecies. Among frontalis males, hatch-year birds did not differ from adults in mean plumage hue, but they had a significantly lower proportion of red pigments in their plumage, and significantly lower levels of the red piments adonirubin and astaxanthin, but significantly higher levels of the yellow pigment zeaxanthin, than adult males. Among griscomi males, hatch-year birds differed from adults in plumage hue but not significantly in pigment composition, though in general their feathers had lower concentrations of red pigments and higher concentrations of yellow pigments than adult males. Both adult and hatch-year frontalis males differed from griscomi males in having significantly higher levels of most yellow carotenoid pigments and significantly lower levels of most red carotenoid pigments. Variation in pigment profiles of subspecies and age classes may reflect differences among the groups in carotenoid metabolism, in dietary access to carotenoids, or in exposure to environmental factors, such as parasites, that may affect pigmentation.
Vol. 118 • No. 4