Many passerine species are highly dichromatic with brightly-colored males and cryptically-colored females. Bright plumage in males is commonly thought to arise as a result of sexual selection by females such that males with bright coloration possess high fitness. However, bright plumage potentially could expose males to increased predation risk. Consistent with this idea, males of many highly dichromatic passerine species do not incubate. I tested whether brightly-colored males avoid incubation to reduce the probability of visual predators locating their nest. This hypothesis predicts greater hatching success for clutches incubated by cryptically-colored individuals than by brightly-colored individuals. The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a common dichromatic species that breeds throughout the eastern U.S. I placed two button-quail (Turnix st).) eggs in each of 203 simulated cardinal nests. Dull brown cardboard, simulating a female cardinal, was placed over about half of all clutches. Bright red cardboard, simulating a male cardinal, was placed over the other clutches. Nest success was highest for well-concealed nests (87%) and lowest for nests in open habitat (54%). Nests containing red cardboard did not have significantly lower success than nests with brown cardboard, nor did I detect a significant color X vegetation-density interaction. My analysis may have had insufficient power to detect an effect of color on nest success; alternatively, brightly-colored males that do not incubate may achieve benefits unrelated to predation risk.
Additional publication details
Relative effects of plumage coloration and vegetation density on nest success