Male Red-Winged Blackbirds With Experimentally Dulled Epaulets Experience No Disadvantage in Sexual Selection

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The epaulets of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are frequently cited as a sexually selected plumage ornament, but a number of laboratory and field studies provide little evidence that they are currently experiencing sexual selection. We used hair dye to dull epaulets of free-living territorial males prior to pair formation to determine if manipulated males experienced disadvantages in comparison with control males. We found no differences between control males and males with dulled epaulets in territorial behavior (territory size, song rate, trespass rate, and loss of territory), paternal care (time spent on territory and in antipredator sentinel behavior, and response to a model crow to simulate the threat of predation), pairing success (number of social mates), apparent reproductive success (numbers of nesting attempts, eggs/nest, nestlings/egg, and fledglings/nestling), or realized reproductive success (numbers of within-pair, extra-pair, and total fledglings as determined by DNA fingerprinting). We then used a meta-analysis of 11 published studies of Red-winged Blackbirds to determine if there is an overall effect of epaulet color or size on male-male competition, female choice, or reproductive success. Our results show that epaulet size has a small positive effect on male reproductive success, but epaulet color has no effect on male-male competition, female choice, and male reproductive success. One explanation for the seeming contradiction between studies that show that epaulets are necessary for territory defense and those that conclude that epaulets are not currently under selection is that epaulets serve as one of several cues of species recognition, especially among males at close range. An alternative explanation proposes counter-balancing intersexual advantages and intrasexual disadvantages of epaulet expression. Additional studies are needed to test these alternatives.