Why birds eat colourful grit: colour preferences revealed by the colour of gizzard stones

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Colour preferences from sexual or social contexts are assumed to have arisen owing to preferences for specific kinds of food, representing a sensory bias, but once colour preferences have evolved in a sexual context, they may also be expressed during foraging. We tested whether preferences for specific body colours (i.e. plumage and soft parts) were related to colour preferences for grit ingested by birds. Birds eat grit to facilitate break down of food by the gizzard, and this function is independent of the colour of grit, but depends on the physical properties of stones. Bird species were significantly consistent in colour of grit, and grit of different colours varied in prevalence among species, even when analyses were restricted to a sample from a single locality. There were positive correlations between presence of lilac and red grit in the gizzard and presence of sexually dichromatic lilac and red colour on the body. There was a positive correlation between red grit colour and red sexually monochromatic body colour. Bird species with many different sexual colours, but not sexually monochromatic colours on their body had many different colours of grit. Males had more lilac and red grit than females, with this effect differing among species, whereas that was not the case for grit of other colours. These findings are consistent with the sensory bias hypothesis that birds express preferences for grit of specific colours and a high diversity of colours related to sexual colouration of the body, even when the colour of such grit is only visible to the individual at the moment of ingestion.

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