Timing of breeding and offspring number covary with plumage colour among Gyrfalcons Falco rusticolus
Plumage colour variation exists among Gyrfalcons throughout their Arctic and sub-Arctic circumpolar distribution, ranging from white through silver and grey to almost black. Although different colour variants coexist within many populations, a few geographical regions, such as northern Greenland, possess a single variant, suggesting that local environments may influence plumage colour variation. In central-west Greenland (66.5–67.5°N), where multiple colour variants exist, white male Gyrfalcons fathered significantly earlier clutches than grey males. No significant association was observed between female colour and lay date. However, significantly more offspring were produced by both male and female white Gyrfalcons than by grey variants when controlling for lay date, and silver Gyrfalcons produced an intermediate number of offspring for both sexes. This pattern was further supported by breeding plumage colour pairings. Grey females paired with grey males nested significantly later in the season and produced fewer offspring than those paired with white males, whereas no difference in lay date or offspring number was found between white males paired with white or with grey females. The difference in the number of offspring produced at each nest-site was also inversely correlated with the distance to the nearest neighbouring nest, and grey males nested in closer proximity to other nests compared with white and silver colour variants. These results suggest that factors associated with territory occupancy and timing of breeding may regulate reproductive success differently between colour variants, with directional selection favouring light-coloured Gyrfalcons and resulting in earlier lay date and a high frequency of white plumage colour variants in this population. Although gene flow exists between our study population and those further north (>75°N), white Gyrfalcons prevail where the breeding season duration is even shorter, suggesting that nesting chronology in combination with genetic drift may play an important role in influencing plumage colour polymorphism among Gyrfalcon populations.