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On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 25 July, 2002 Next Week's Question
Why a male robin's breat is redder than his mate
Why are male robins more colorful than the female robins?

When male and female birds differ in color, the male is almost always brighter. Some studies show that females prefer a brighter male over a dull one, and that brighter males produce more young.

Why? Biologists debate the exact reasons, but on idea is that the male's bright plumage indicates that he is vigorous and excels at finding food, resisting diseases, defending a territory or responding to predators.

But being colorful has its risks. A colorful bird might be easier for predator to spot. The males of some birds with brilliant plumage, such as scarlet tanagers, shed their bright feathers when the breeding season is over, and grow new drab feathers that they wear during fall and winter.

Why are males usually the colorful ones, not females? Being colorful has a higher payoff for males. An eye-catching male may be able to attract and mate with more than one female, as males of some bird species do.

A female robin, however, can only lay and care for three or four eggs at a time, no matter what her plumage looks like or how many males she mates with.

And because she is the one to build the nest and incubate the eggs, her duller plumage may be especially important in keeping herself and her eggs out of danger.

Over time, colorful male robins and drab females have produced the most young and passed their traits son to the next generations, accounting for the differences between males and females that you see.

Interestingly, in some species, such as the red-necked phalarope, the female sometimes leaves the eggs in the male's care and is freed up to find another mate while he incubates the eggs. With the roles reversed, it's the female red-necked phalarope who is more colorful.