Color bands function as secondary sexual traits in male red-winged blackbirds

Karen J. Metz, Patrick J. Weatherhead

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We present the first experiment to assess band color effects in a natural bird population. 38 territorial male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 banding treatments. They received either all red bands (to match their epaulets) or all black bands (controls). Over half the red-banded males lost their territories while all black-banded males retained their territories. Red and black-banded males did not differ morphologically. However, among red-banded males, those that lost their territories had larger epaulets and were in poorer condition than those retaining their territories. Red-banded males suffered much higher intrusion rates, particularly by neighbors, than black-banded males. We propose that red color bands exaggerated the males' natural aggressive signal beyond the point where the signal was reliable. Our results suggest that signal reliability is maintained by regular testing, particularly of those males most likely to be signalling dishonestly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)23-27
Number of pages5
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1991
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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