Parasite faunas, testosterone and secondary sexual traits in male red-winged blackbirds

Patrick J. Weatherhead, Karen J. Metz, Gordon F. Bennett, Rebecca E. Irwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We examined associations among parasite infections, secondary sexual traits and testosterone in male red-winged blackbirds sampled at the start of the breeding season. Parasites quantified included ectoparasitic lice and mites and endoparasitic blood protozoans, nematodes, trematodes and cestodes. Secondary sexual traits that we quantified included body size, epaulet size and color, song repertoire size and song switching rate, and behavioral responses to male and female models. Overall we found few significant associations between parasites and secondary sexual traits, between secondary sexual traits and testosterone, or between parasites and testosterone. In addition, most parasite taxa appeared to infect birds independently, although the low prevalence (<50%) of many of the parasites meant that our sample sizes were too small to detect weak associations. Our most promising results were obtained for ectoparasitic mites, which tended to occur on birds uninfected with other parasites, on birds with longer epaulets, and on birds with higher levels of testosterone. Epaulet length and testosterone are both probable correlates of dominance in this species. Further research will be required to determine whether there is a causal link between the immunosuppressive effects of testosterone and the mite infections, and between testosterone, epaulet length and male mating success.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-23
Number of pages11
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1993
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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