Elaborately ornamented males avoid costly parental care in the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus): A proximate perspective

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Selection should favor flexibility in reproductive tactics when the combination of sexual traits and reproductive behaviors that achieve the highest fitness differs between males within a population. Understanding the functional significance of variation in male reproductive tactics can provide insight into their evolution. Male house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) in a Montana population display continuous variation in parental tactics: males with more elaborated (redder) plumage color provide little or no parental care compared to less elaborated (dull) males. Here, we first determined whether elevation of prolactin (a pituitary hormone) was related to variation in male parental tactics and, second, we used the relationship between prolactin levels and parental behavior to investigate why redder males avoid a high investment in parental care. We found that prolactin elevation was closely associated with paternal care. In addition, males with redder plumage color had low prolactin levels, whereas dull males, which provision twice as frequently, had high levels of prolactin. We also found that male condition was unrelated to plumage color but negatively related to prolactin levels. These results suggest that the low provisioning of redder males was not due to physiological constraints, but instead reflected a tactic to avoid the costs associated with parental care. The condition benefits accrued by redder males may explain their higher post-breeding survival compared to dull males. Moreover, dull males were previously shown to have higher pairing success than redder males, suggesting that the relationship between male plumage color and parental care may reflect individually optimized parental tactics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)176-183
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2003


  • House finch
  • Life history
  • Prolactin
  • Reproductive tactic
  • Sexual ornament

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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