Song is a sexually selected trait that is thought to be an honest signal of the health condition of an individual in many bird species. For species that breed opportunistically, the quantity of food may be a determinant of singing activity. However, it is not yet known whether the quality of food plays an important role in this respect. The aim of the present study was to experimentally investigate the role of two calorie-free nutrients (lutein and cholesterol) in determining the expression of a sexually selected behavior (song rate) and other behaviors (locomotor activity, self-maintenance activity, eating and resting) in male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). We predicted that males supplemented with lutein and cholesterol would sing at higher rates than controls because both lutein and cholesterol have important health-related physiological functions in birds and birdsong mirrors individual condition. To control for testosterone secretion that may upregulate birdsong, birds were exposed to a decreasing photoperiod. Our results showed that control males down-regulated testosterone in response to a decreasing photoperiod, while birds treated with lutein or cholesterol maintained a constant singing activity. Both lutein- and cholesterol-supplemented groups sang more than control groups by the end of the experiment, indicating that the quality of food can affect undirected song irrespective of circulating testosterone concentrations. None of the other measured behaviors were affected by the treatment, suggesting that, when individuals have full availability of food, sexually selected song traits are more sensitive to the effect of food quality than other behavioral traits. Overall the results support our prediction that undirected song produced by male zebra finches signals access to high-quality food.
Keywords: Birdsong; Carotenoid; Food quality; Photoperiod; Testosterone; Undirected song.