The ability to identify distinct taxonomic groups of birds (species, subspecies, geographic races) can advance ecological research efforts by determining connectivity between the non-breeding and breeding grounds for migrant species, identifying the origin of migrants, and helping to refine boundaries between subspecies or geographic races. Multiple methods are available to identify taxonomic groups (e.g., morphology, genetics), and one that has played an important role for avian taxonomists over the years is plumage coloration. With the advent of electronic devices that can quickly and accurately quantify plumage coloration, the potential of using coloration as an identifier for distinct taxonomic groups, even when differences are subtle, becomes possible. In this study, we evaluated the degree to which plumage coloration differs among the four subspecies of the willow flycatcher Empidonax traillii, evaluated sources of variation, and considered the utility of plumage coloration to assign subspecies membership for individuals of unknown origin. We used a colorimeter to measure plumage coloration of 374 adult willow flycatchers from 29 locations across their breeding range in 2004 and 2005. We found strong statistical differences among the mean plumage coloration values of the four subspecies; however, while individuals tended to group around their respective subspecies' mean color value, the dispersion of individuals around such means overlapped. Mean color values for each breeding site of the three western subspecies clustered together, but the eastern subspecies' color values were dispersed among the other subspecies, rather than distinctly clustered. Additionally, sites along boundaries showed evidence of intergradation and intermediate coloration patterns. We evaluated the predictive power of colorimeter measurements on flycatchers by constructing a canonical discriminant model to predict subspecies origin of migrants passing through the southwestern U.S. Considering only western subspecies, we found that individuals can be assigned with reasonable certainty. Applying the model to migrants sampled along the Colorado River in Mexico and the U.S. suggests different migration patterns for the three western subspecies. We believe that the use of plumage coloration, as measured by electronic devices, can provide a powerful tool to look at ecological questions in a wide range of avian species.
Additional publication details
Geographic variation in the plumage coloration of willow flycatchers Empidonax traillii