Date of Thesis



Animal coloration often serves as a signal to others that may communicate traits about the individual such as toxicity, status, or quality. Colorful ornaments in many animals are often honest signals of quality assessed by mates, and different colors may beproduced by different biochemical pigments. Investigations of the mechanisms responsible for variation in color expression among birds are best when including a geographically and temporally broad sample. In order to obtain such a sample, studies such as this often use museum specimens; however, in order for museum specimens toserve as an accurate replacement, they must accurately represent living birds, or we must understand the ways in which they differ. In this thesis, I investigated the link between feather corticosterone, a hormone secreted in response to stress, and carotenoid-basedcoloration in the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) in order to explore a mechanistic link between physiological state and color expression. Male Red-winged Blackbirds with lower feather corticosterone had significantly brighter red epaulets than birds with higher feather corticosterone, while I found no significant changes in red chroma. I also performed a methodological comparison of color change in museum specimens among different pigment types (carotenoid and psittacofulvin) and pigments in different locations in the body (feather and bill carotenoids) in order to quantify colorchange over time. Carotenoids and psittacofulvins showed significant reductions in red brightness and chroma over time in the collection, and carotenoid color changed significantly faster than psittacofulvin color. Both bill and feather carotenoids showed significant reductions in red brightness and red chroma over time, but change of both red chroma and red brightness occurred at a similar rate in feathers and bills. In order to use museum specimens of ecological research on bird coloration specimen age must be accounted for before the data can be used; however, once this is accomplished, museum- based color data may be used to draw conclusions about wild populations.


bird coloration, museum specimens, carotenoids, psittacofulvins, corticosterone

Access Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Type

Master of Science



First Advisor

Don C.Dearborn