Condition-dependence of male ornaments is thought to provide honest signals on which females can base their sexual choice for genetic quality. Recent studies yet show that condition-dependence patterns can vary within populations. Although long-term association is thought to promote honest signalling, no study has explored the influence of pairing context on the condition-dependence of male ornaments. In this study, we assessed the influence of natural variation in body condition on song rate in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) in three different situations: during short and long encounters with an unfamiliar female, and within heterosexual mated pairs. We found consistent individual differences in male directed and undirected song rate. Moreover, body condition had a positive effect on song rate in paired males. However, male song rate was not influenced by body condition during short or long encounters with unfamiliar females. Song rate appears as an unreliable signal of condition to prospective females as even poor condition birds can cheat and sing at a high rate. By contrast, paired females can reliably use song rate to assess their mate’s body condition and possibly
the genetic quality. We propose that species’ characteristics, such as mating system, should be systematically taken into account to generate relevant hypotheses about the evolution of condition-dependent male ornaments.