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Chick magnet? It's all about what you eat

Posted on 2. April, 2013.

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Research by the Zoological Society of London and University of Cambridge shows that male hihi birds develop more colourful and attractive breeding feathers if they receive a nest diet rich in carotenoids – natural pigments found mainly in fruit and vegetables. The paper, published in Proceedings of The Royal Society B, looks at the effects of newborn nutrition on male plumage in the rare New Zealand hihi (Notiomystis concta) over the course of a year.

ZSL and University of Cambridge PhD student Leila Walker said: “We first hand-fed baby hihi birds either a carotenoid supplement - natural pigments used to colour yellow, orange and red - or a more complete dietary supplement. Then we looked at the effect this had on male breeding feather colour once those chicks had grown and moulted into their adult plumage.”

All nestlings initially develop female-like plumage and fledge at around one month old. Youngsters then moult their body feathers at about four months old, during which time the males obtain their breeding features. Colourful plumage is an important factor in a bird’s breeding success as it demonstrates the strong health of a bird to females.

ZSL Research Fellow Dr John Ewen said: “We saw that nestlings receiving more carotenoids were brighter as adults. This was a combined result of the carotenoid-rich dietary supplement they received, and the carotenoids they obtained as part of a natural diet fed to them by their parents.”

Almost all wild hihi populations require conservation support in terms of food supplementation. ZSL will continue to work on narrowing down on a diet that produces the most, and best quality, offspring to help rebuild high numbers of this most brightly coloured of New Zealand birds.

Photo: Male and female hihi from  A history of the birds of New Zealand, 2nd edn, Published 1888.

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