Mouth colour components of begging are dynamic signals of quality in European starling nestlings
Staffan Jacob and Philipp Heeb
Offspring solicit food from their parents through begging signals. Nestling skin and flange coloration are begging signals that appear to convey information about nestling need or condition, and several experiments have shown that modifications of nestling coloration affect parental allocation decisions. However, it is important to examine the short-term changes in these signalling components in response to food constraints since such dynamic changes are required for signals to indicate condition or need. Using a food deprivation experiment, we tested whether flange and skin reflectance in European starling Sturnus vulgaris nestlings change after a three-hour interval. We investigated whether flange and skin reflectance changed according to the predictions arising from the ‘signal of quality’ or ‘signal of need’ hypotheses on the function of begging signals. We found that flange carotenoid and UV reflectance changed according to the signal of quality hypothesis with nestlings in good condition increasing their signal expression in response to the food deprivation, whereas those in poor condition decreased their signal expression. With the use of vision modelling, we show that changes in flange reflectance are detectable by starling parents. In contrast, we found a correlation going in the opposite direction for changes in skin UV reflectance. Nestlings with low lipid reserves increased their reflectance compared to nestlings with high reserves. However, vision modelling showed that short-term changes in skin UV reflectance are not large enough to be detectable by the parents. Our study shows that flange carotenoid and UV reflectance are dynamic components of begging with short-term variations that can be used by parents as signals of nestling quality.