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Phenotypic variation, measured as the coefficient of variation (CV), is usually larger in secondary sexual characters than in ordinary morphological traits. We tested if intraspecific differences in the CV between ornamental and non-ornamental feather traits in 67 evolutionary events of feather ornamentation in birds were due to differences in (1) the allometric pattern (slope of the regression line when regressing trait size on an indicator of body size), or (2) the dispersion of observations around the regression line. We found that only dispersion of observations around the regression line contributed significantly to total variation. A large dispersion of observations around the regression line for ornamental feathers is consistent with these characters showing condition-dependence, supporting indicator models of sexual selection more strongly than a pure Fisher process. Ornamental feathers in males demonstrated negative allometry when regressed on tarsus length, which is a measure of skeletal body size. This finding is consistent with ornamental feather traits being subject to directional selection due to female mate preferences, where large body size is less important than in male–male competition. This pattern of phenotypic variation for avian secondary sexual characters contrasts with patterns of variation for insect genitalia, supposedly subject to sexual selection, since the latter traits only differ from ordinary morphology traits in allometry coefficient. The prevailing regime of selection (directional or stabilizing) and the effects of environmental factors are proposed to account for these differences among traits.