Golden plovers and Grey Plovers Pluvialis spp. all have very distinct breeding plumage rich in contrast, with a conspicuous black belly and breast bordered by a bright white fringe. Eurasian Golden Plovers are known partly to replace their breeding plumage with striped yellow feathers during incubation, different from both breeding and non-breeding plumages. In this study a similar partial breeding moult was observed in Pacific Golden Plovers and American Golden Plovers caught on the nest or collected during incubation, although the feathers did not differ clearly from those of non-breeders. This moult starts during incubation and precedes the post-breeding moult into non-breeding plumage. Because the lighter feathers reduce the contrast between the black belly and the white flanks, we suggest that during incubation the plumage characteristic that plays an important role in mate choice is no longer important; at this stage it is better for the bird to be inconspicuous. Additional information on museum skins of golden plovers and of Grey Plovers indicated that only the three golden plovers undergo this partial moult, but that Grey Plovers in general retain full breeding plumage throughout incubation. The three golden plovers also resemble each other in their generally very passive nest defence strategies. In contrast, the larger Grey Plovers actively chase and attack aerial and ground predators. Thus, a reduced conspicuousness of the body plumage during incubation is likely to benefit the golden plovers more than the Grey Plover. We suggest that nest defence behaviour, plumage characteristics and perhaps size have co-evolved as a response to different selection pressures in golden plovers and Grey Plover, but alternative hypotheses are also discussed.
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