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Sexual selection and the tail ornaments of North American barn swallows

  • Henrik G. Smith
  • R Montgomerie
Publishing year: 1991
Language: English
Pages: 195-201
Publication/Series: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Volume: 28
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Springer

Abstract english

In this study conducted in southeastern Ontario, Canada, we manipulated the length of outer tail feathers (streamers) of male barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) shortly after they returned to four small breeding colonies in the spring. Both streamers on most males in these colonies were experimentally either lengthened or shortened by 20 mm and as a result 10 randomly chosen males of each category had their streamer lengths manipulated before the fertile period of their mate. Males with elongated streamers had a significantly shorter pre-laying period (from arrival until first egg date) than those with shortened streamers and we interpret this as indicating that they obtained their mates more rapidly. Females mated to elongated males had significantly longer tails and laid their first egg significantly earlier than those mated to shortened males; no other indices of reproductive success differed between these two experimental groups. These results provide some support for previous work suggesting that females prefer males with longer streamers and thus that streamer length in this species is under the influence of sexual selection. We also found that males with longer natural streamers were significantly more likely to break them and that males were much more likely to break their streamers than were females. Since males participate in incubation in North America but not in Europe, we suggest that the aerodynamic disadvantages of streamer breakage that result from incubation attentiveness are at least partly responsible for the shorter streamer length of males in North America.


  • Ecology
  • Zoology


  • ISSN: 1432-0762
Henrik Smith
E-mail: henrik [dot] smith [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se



+46 46 222 93 79

+46 70 978 20 56




Centre for Environmental and Climate Research (CEC)

+46 46 222 93 79

+46 70 978 20 56


Sölvegatan 37, Lund


Centre for Animal Movement Research
Evolutionary Ecology, Department of Biology
Ecology building S-223 62 Lund Sweden