Patterns of courtship behavior and ejaculate characteristics in male red-winged blackbirds

David F. Westneat, Lisa A. McGraw, Jennifer M. Fraterrigo, Tim R. Birkhead, F. Fletcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sperm competition in birds is likely to have important effects on the behavior and physiology of reproduction in both sexes. For males, such competition should select for large sperm reserves and behavioral adjustment of copulation when reserves are low. We investigated both these possibilities in free-living red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), a highly polygynous species with apparently strong sperm competition. We found that the recent copulatory behavior of males did not affect the propensity to copulate with a model female. Ejaculates collected from individual males at 1-h intervals showed no evidence of sperm depletion, yet repeated ejaculates collected less than 10 min apart did. Male ejaculate size was significantly larger if it was the first one of the day (i.e., after an overnight rest). The average ejaculate size was 12.5 (±12.5 SD) million sperm. Males captured during the breeding season had an average of 111.7 (±52.8) million sperm stored in their seminal glomera. Because males average a peak copulation rate of six per female per day, in one day a male might utilize all the sperm in his seminal glomera if more than two females on his territory are fertilizable. We hypothesize that polygyny and sperm competition in this species have combined to select for rapid replenishment of the seminal glomera throughout the day, in contrast to other species that have been studied. Testis size and sperm reserves of male red-winged blackbirds are intermediate between monogamous species and species with intense sperm competition. Several possible explanations for this are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-171
Number of pages11
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • Extra-pair copulation
  • Fertilization
  • Red-winged blackbirds
  • Sexual conflict
  • Sperm competition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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