Wintering Snowy Owls Bubo scandiacus integrate plumage colour, behaviour and their environment to maximize efficacy of visual displays
For a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of animal signals, it is necessary to understand how the performance of visual displays is maximized to get the most possible attention from receivers. We assessed whether the white plumage of Snowy Owls Bubo scandiacus functioned as a social signal and, if so, how coloration and behavioural adaptations enhance signal efficacy. Signalling theory predicts that: (1) the colour properties of plumage should vary across the body, with the brightest parts being those involved in visual display performance; (2) specific displays calling attention to or enhancing detection or conspicuousness to conspecifics should be evident; and (3) location of the signallers should be such that signal efficacy is optimized. All three predictions were supported. The brightest areas of the plumage (particularly the face, throat and upper breast) were always unspotted, and white is particularly effective in open habitats characteristic of this species. The birds displayed a specific posture and orientated toward the sun preferentially on sunny days, and Owls with the whitest (least spotted) plumage displayed more and signalled more frequently from perches on the ground, where albedo from the snow may enhance the visual display. Snowy Owls integrate coloration, behaviour and environment through habitat selection to maximize the efficacy of their visual displays.