The Descent of Man – Day 100 of 151

The foregoing remarks relate to the secondary wing-feathers, but the primary wing-feathers, which in most gallinaceous birds are uniformly coloured, are in the Argus pheasant equally wonderful. They are of a soft brown tint with numerous dark spots, each of which consists of two or three black dots with a surrounding dark zone. But the chief ornament is a space parallel to the dark-blue shaft, which in outline forms a perfect second feather lying within the true feather. This inner part is coloured of a lighter chestnut, and is thickly dotted with minute white points. I have shewn this feather to several persons, and many have admired it even more than the ball and socket feathers, and have declared that it was more like a work of art than of nature. Now these feathers are quite hidden on all ordinary occasions, but are fully displayed, together with the long secondary feathers, when they are all expanded together so as to form the great fan or shield.

The case of the male Argus pheasant is eminently interesting, because it affords good evidence that the most refined beauty may serve as a sexual charm, and for no other purpose. We must conclude that this is the case, as the secondary and primary wing-feathers are not at all displayed, and the ball and socket ornaments are not exhibited in full perfection until the male assumes the attitude of courtship. The Argus pheasant does not possess brilliant colours, so that his success in love appears to depend on the great size of his plumes, and on the elaboration of the most elegant patterns. Many will declare that it is utterly incredible that a female bird should be able to appreciate fine shading and exquisite patterns. It is undoubtedly a marvellous fact that she should possess this almost human degree of taste. He who thinks that he can safely gauge the discrimination and taste of the lower animals may deny that the female Argus pheasant can appreciate such refined beauty; but he will then be compelled to admit that the extraordinary attitudes assumed by the male during the act of courtship, by which the wonderful beauty of his plumage is fully displayed, are purposeless; and this is a conclusion which I for one will never admit.

Although so many pheasants and allied gallinaceous birds carefully display their plumage before the females, it is remarkable, as Mr. Bartlett informs me, that this is not the case with the dull-coloured Eared and Cheer pheasants (Crossoptilon auritum and Phasianus wallichii); so that these birds seem conscious that they have little beauty to display. Mr. Bartlett has never seen the males of either of these species fighting together, though he has not had such good opportunities for observing the Cheer as the Eared pheasant. Mr. Jenner Weir, also, finds that all male birds with rich or strongly-characterised plumage are more quarrelsome than the dull-coloured species belonging to the same groups. The goldfinch, for instance, is far more pugnacious than the linnet, and the blackbird than the thrush. Those birds which undergo a seasonal change of plumage likewise become much more pugnacious at the period when they are most gaily ornamented. No doubt the males of some obscurely-coloured birds fight desperately together, but it appears that when sexual selection has been highly influential, and has given bright colours to the males of any species, it has also very often given a strong tendency to pugnacity. We shall meet with nearly analogous cases when we treat of mammals. On the other hand, with birds the power of song and brilliant colours have rarely been both acquired by the males of the same species; but in this case the advantage gained would have been the same, namely success in charming the female. Nevertheless it must be owned that the males of several brilliantly coloured birds have had their feathers specially modified for the sake of producing instrumental music, though the beauty of this cannot be compared, at least according to our taste, with that of the vocal music of many songsters.

We will now turn to male birds which are not ornamented in any high degree, but which nevertheless display during their courtship whatever attractions they may possess. These cases are in some respects more curious than the foregoing, and have been but little noticed. I owe the following facts to Mr. Weir, who has long kept confined birds of many kinds, including all the British Fringillidae and Emberizidae. The facts have been selected from a large body of valuable notes kindly sent me by him. The bullfinch makes his advances in front of the female, and then puffs out his breast, so that many more of the crimson feathers are seen at once than otherwise would be the case. At the same time he twists and bows his black tail from side to side in a ludicrous manner. The male chaffinch also stands in front of the female, thus shewing his red breast and “blue bell,” as the fanciers call his head; the wings at the same time being slightly expanded, with the pure white bands on the shoulders thus rendered conspicuous. The common linnet distends his rosy breast, slightly expands his brown wings and tail, so as to make the best of them by exhibiting their white edgings. We must, however, be cautious in concluding that the wings are spread out solely for display, as some birds do so whose wings are not beautiful. This is the case with the domestic cock, but it is always the wing on the side opposite to the female which is expanded, and at the same time scraped on the ground. The male goldfinch behaves differently from all other finches: his wings are beautiful, the shoulders being black, with the dark-tipped wing-feathers spotted with white and edged with golden yellow. When he courts the female, he sways his body from side to side, and quickly turns his slightly expanded wings first to one side, then to the other, with a golden flashing effect. Mr. Weir informs me that no other British finch turns thus from side to side during his courtship, not even the closely-allied male siskin, for he would not thus add to his beauty.

Most of the British Buntings are plain coloured birds; but in the spring the feathers on the head of the male reed-bunting (Emberiza schoeniculus) acquire a fine black colour by the abrasion of the dusky tips; and these are erected during the act of courtship. Mr. Weir has kept two species of Amadina from Australia: the A. castanotis is a very small and chastely coloured finch, with a dark tail, white rump, and jet-black upper tail-coverts, each of the latter being marked with three large conspicuous oval spots of white. (91. For the description of these birds, see Gould’s ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. 1865, p. 417.) This species, when courting the female, slightly spreads out and vibrates these parti-coloured tail-coverts in a very peculiar manner. The male Amadina Lathami behaves very differently, exhibiting before the female his brilliantly spotted breast, scarlet rump, and scarlet upper tail-coverts. I may here add from Dr. Jerdon that the Indian bulbul (Pycnonotus hoemorrhous) has its under tail-coverts of a crimson colour, and these, it might be thought, could never be well exhibited; but the bird “when excited often spreads them out laterally, so that they can be seen even from above.” (92. ‘Birds of India,’ vol. ii. p. 96.) The crimson under tail-coverts of some other birds, as with one of the woodpeckers, Picus major, can be seen without any such display. The common pigeon has iridescent feathers on the breast, and every one must have seen how the male inflates his breast whilst courting the female, thus shewing them off to the best advantage. One of the beautiful bronze-winged pigeons of Australia (Ocyphaps lophotes) behaves, as described to me by Mr. Weir, very differently: the male, whilst standing before the female, lowers his head almost to the ground, spreads out and raises his tail, and half expands his wings. He then alternately and slowly raises and depresses his body, so that the iridescent metallic feathers are all seen at once, and glitter in the sun.

Sufficient facts have now been given to shew with what care male birds display their various charms, and this they do with the utmost skill. Whilst preening their feathers, they have frequent opportunities for admiring themselves, and of studying how best to exhibit their beauty. But as all the males of the same species display themselves in exactly the same manner, it appears that actions, at first perhaps intentional, have become instinctive. If so, we ought not to accuse birds of conscious vanity; yet when we see a peacock strutting about, with expanded and quivering tail-feathers, he seems the very emblem of pride and vanity.

The various ornaments possessed by the males are certainly of the highest importance to them, for in some cases they have been acquired at the expense of greatly impeded powers of flight or of running. The African night-jar (Cosmetornis), which during the pairing-season has one of its primary wing-feathers developed into a streamer of very great length, is thereby much retarded in its flight, although at other times remarkable for its swiftness. The “unwieldy size” of the secondary wing-feathers of the male Argus pheasant is said “almost entirely to deprive the bird of flight.” The fine plumes of male birds of paradise trouble them during a high wind. The extremely long tail-feathers of the male widow-birds (Vidua) of Southern Africa render “their flight heavy;” but as soon as these are cast off they fly as well as the females. As birds always breed when food is abundant, the males probably do not suffer much inconvenience in searching for food from their impeded powers of movement; but there can hardly be a doubt that they must be much more liable to be struck down by birds of prey. Nor can we doubt that the long train of the peacock and the long tail and wing-feathers of the Argus pheasant must render them an easier prey to any prowling tiger-cat than would otherwise be the case. Even the bright colours of many male birds cannot fail to make them conspicuous to their enemies of all kinds. Hence, as Mr. Gould has remarked, it probably is that such birds are generally of a shy disposition, as if conscious that their beauty was a source of danger, and are much more difficult to discover or approach, than the sombre coloured and comparatively tame females or than the young and as yet unadorned males. (93. On the Cosmetornis, see Livingstone’s ‘Expedition to the Zambesi,’ 1865, p. 66. On the Argus pheasant, Jardine’s ‘Nat. Hist. Lib.: Birds,’ vol. xiv. p. 167. On Birds of Paradise, Lesson, quoted by Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ B. iii. s. 325. On the widow-bird, Barrow’s ‘Travels in Africa,’ vol. i. p. 243, and ‘Ibis,’ vol. iii. 1861 p. 133. Mr. Gould, on the shyness of male birds, ‘Handbook to Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. 1865, pp. 210, 457.)

It is a more curious fact that the males of some birds which are provided with special weapons for battle, and which in a state of nature are so pugnacious that they often kill each other, suffer from possessing certain ornaments. Cock-fighters trim the hackles and cut off the combs and gills of their cocks; and the birds are then said to be dubbed. An undubbed bird, as Mr. Tegetmeier insists, “is at a fearful disadvantage; the comb and gills offer an easy hold to his adversary’s beak, and as a cock always strikes where he holds, when once he has seized his foe, he has him entirely in his power. Even supposing that the bird is not killed, the loss of blood suffered by an undubbed cock is much greater than that sustained by one that has been trimmed.” (94. Tegetmeier, ‘The Poultry Book,’ 1866, p. 139.) Young turkey-cocks in fighting always seize hold of each other’s wattles; and I presume that the old birds fight in the same manner. It may perhaps be objected that the comb and wattles are not ornamental, and cannot be of service to the birds in this way; but even to our eyes, the beauty of the glossy black Spanish cock is much enhanced by his white face and crimson comb; and no one who has ever seen the splendid blue wattles of the male Tragopan pheasant distended in courtship can for a moment doubt that beauty is the object gained. From the foregoing facts we clearly see that the plumes and other ornaments of the males must be of the highest importance to them; and we further see that beauty is even sometimes more important than success in battle.

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