Plumage reflectance is not affected by preen wax composition in red knots Calidris canutus

Jeroen Reneerkens, Peter Korsten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (SciVal)


It has recently been shown that sandpipers (Scolopacidae) abruptly switch the chemical composition of their preen gland secretions from mono- to diester waxes just before the period of courtship. The timing and context of the shift suggested that diesters could provide a visible quality signal during mate choice. We used captive red knots Calidris canutus to test whether mono- and diester preen waxes affect the light reflectance (“colour”) of the plumage. We also determined light absorbance spectra of the two wax types. The reflectance of breast feathers of the breeding plumage was measured with spectrophotometry when birds secreted monoesters and six weeks later when they secreted diester preen waxes. Light reflectance was also measured after removing the mono- and diester waxes from the plumage with a solvent. The results show that: (1) diester preen waxes absorb more light, especially ultraviolet (UV), than monoester preen waxes, but that (2) the compositional shift in the preen waxes did not change plumage reflectance and, (3) the removal of preen waxes did not change the reflectance of the plumage within the light spectrum assumed visible to birds (320–700 nm). This is not consistent with the idea that compositional shifts in the preen waxes of red knots have a visual function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-409
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number5
Early online date26 Aug 2004
Publication statusPublished - 01 Sept 2004
Externally publishedYes


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