Many animals develop bright red, orange, or yellow carotenoid pigmentation that they use to attract mates. Colorful carotenoid pigments are acquired from the diet and are either directly incorporated as integumentary colorants or metabolized into other forms before deposition. Because animals often obtain several different carotenoids from plant and animal food sources, it is possible that these pigments are accumulated at different levels in the body and may play unique roles in shaping the ultimate color expression of individuals. We studied patterns of carotenoid accumulation and integumentary pigmentation in two colorful finch species--the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) and the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). Both species acquire two main hydroxycarotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, from their seed diet but transform these into a series of metabolites that are used as colorful pigments in the plumage (goldfinches only) and beak (both species). We conducted a series of carotenoid-supplementation experiments to investigate the relative extent to which lutein and zeaxanthin are accumulated in blood and increase carotenoid coloration in feathers and bare parts. First, we supplemented the diets of both species with either lutein or zeaxanthin and measured plasma pigment status, feather carotenoid concentration (goldfinches only), and integumentary color. Zeaxanthin-supplemented males grew more colorful feathers and beaks than lutein-supplemented males, and in goldfinches incorporated a different ratio of carotenoids in feathers (favoring the accumulation of canary xanthophyll B). We also fed goldfinches different concentrations of a standard lutein-zeaxanthin mix and found that at physiologically normal and high concentrations, birds circulated proportionally more zeaxanthin over lutein than occurred in the diet. Collectively, these results demonstrate that zeaxanthin is preferentially accumulated in the body and serves as a more potent substrate for pigmentation than lutein in these finches.