In warblers, longer migration means drabber females
Bruce Lyon

In warblers, longer migration means drabber females

Here’s an easy way to tell if a female warbler is a year-round resident of the tropics or just a visiting snowbird: Females from species that spend their lives near the equator tend to have brighter plumage more typical of male birds. In contrast, females who fly north for the summer appear drab compared with their male counterparts. In the past, researchers thought the difference was due to the shorter breeding season in the north, hypothesizing that migrating males evolved bright colors to better compete for mates. But a new study hints that northern-breeding females may have evolved to be less colorful than males in order to be less conspicuous to predators during their long migrations. Researchers at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, studied the coloring, migration patterns, breeding locales, and ancestry of 109 warbler species. Migration distance, not the length of the breeding season, was the best predictor of color contrasts between male and female birds, they report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Female bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea), for instance, which migrate about 7000 kilometers between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in the Caribbean, are a dull gray and white, whereas males boast more showy yellows and browns. But both male and female slate-throated redstarts (Myioborus miniatus), like the one shown above, flaunt bright colors in their year-round tropical homes in Mexico and Central America. For migrating warblers, the researchers hypothesize that the breeding benefits of brighter male colors outweigh the threat of being spotted by a hungry predator.