Safety in flamboyance

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Birds with colourful plumage are better at attracting mates, but also more likely to attract predators—right? Well, no. When a team of New Zealand and Australian biologists investigated whether dull-coloured birds had better survival rates than brightly coloured ones, they found both were equally likely to be attacked.

The fairy-wren, an Australian songbird, varies wildly in colour—some have brilliant plumage, while others are nondescript. The researchers placed 3D-printed models of the birds at eight fairy-wren sites in Australia, then settled in to watch.

They found that 13.1 per cent of brightly coloured female birds were attacked, compared to 13.6 per cent of dull-coloured females. But there was a wide discrepancy in the rate of attacks between sites, suggesting that survival had more to do with vegetation and location than the flashiness of the birds’ feathers.

“While being brightly coloured can be important, for example in competing for a mate, the assumption has been that it is costly for birds because it appears to scream ‘Here I am, come eat me’,” says lead researcher Kristal Cain of the University of Auckland. “It suggests the relationship between predation and colour is not as simple as we might have thought.

“Instead, it appears that because males and females behave differently—females often take more risks—bright feathers may be more dangerous for females than for males.”

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