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A key question in evolutionary genetics is whether shared genetic mechanisms underlie the independent evolution of similar phenotypes across phylogenetically divergent lineages. Here we show that in two classic examples of melanic plumage polymorphisms in birds, lesser snow geese (Anser c. caerulescens) and arctic skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus), melanism is perfectly associated with variation in the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene. In both species, the degree of melanism correlates with the number of copies of variant MC1R alleles. Phylogenetic reconstructions of variant MC1R alleles in geese and skuas show that melanism is a derived trait that evolved in the Pleistocene.