The Descent of Man – Day 101 of 151

Chapter XIV: Birds–continued

  • Choice exerted by the female
  • Length of courtship
  • Unpaired birds
  • Mental qualities and taste for the beautiful
  • Preference or antipathy shewn by the female for particular males
  • Variability of birds
  • Variations sometimes abrupt
  • Laws of variation
  • Formation of ocelli
  • Gradations of character
  • Case of Peacock, Argus pheasant, and Urosticte

When the sexes differ in beauty or in the power of singing, or in producing what I have called instrumental music, it is almost invariably the male who surpasses the female. These qualities, as we have just seen, are evidently of high importance to the male. When they are gained for only a part of the year it is always before the breeding-season. It is the male alone who elaborately displays his varied attractions, and often performs strange antics on the ground or in the air, in the presence of the female. Each male drives away, or if he can, kills his rivals. Hence we may conclude that it is the object of the male to induce the female to pair with him, and for this purpose he tries to excite or charm her in various ways; and this is the opinion of all those who have carefully studied the habits of living birds. But there remains a question which has an all important bearing on sexual selection, namely, does every male of the same species excite and attract the female equally? Or does she exert a choice, and prefer certain males? This latter question can be answered in the affirmative by much direct and indirect evidence. It is far more difficult to decide what qualities determine the choice of the females; but here again we have some direct and indirect evidence that it is to a large extent the external attractions of the male; though no doubt his vigour, courage, and other mental qualities come into play. We will begin with the indirect evidence.

Length of Courtship

The lengthened period during which both sexes of certain birds meet day after day at an appointed place probably depends partly on the courtship being a prolonged affair, and partly on reiteration in the act of pairing. Thus in Germany and Scandinavia the balzen or leks of the black-cocks last from the middle of March, all through April into May. As many as forty or fifty, or even more birds congregate at the leks; and the same place is often frequented during successive years. The lek of the capercailzie lasts from the end of March to the middle or even end of May. In North America “the partridge dances” of the Tetrao phasianellus “last for a month or more.” Other kinds of grouse, both in North America and Eastern Siberia (1. Nordman describes (‘Bull. Soc. Imp. des Nat. Moscou,’ 1861, tom. xxxiv. p. 264) the balzen of Tetrao urogalloides in Amur Land. He estimated the number of birds assembled at above a hundred, not counting the females, which lie hid in the surrounding bushes. The noises uttered differ from those of T. urogallus.), follow nearly the same habits. The fowlers discover the hillocks where the ruffs congregate by the grass being trampled bare, and this shews that the same spot is long frequented. The Indians of Guiana are well acquainted with the cleared arenas, where they expect to find the beautiful cocks of the Rock; and the natives of New Guinea know the trees where from ten to twenty male birds of paradise in full plumage congregate. In this latter case it is not expressly stated that the females meet on the same trees, but the hunters, if not specially asked, would probably not mention their presence, as their skins are valueless. Small parties of an African weaver (Ploceus) congregate, during the breeding-season, and perform for hours their graceful evolutions. Large numbers of the Solitary snipe (Scolopax major) assemble during dusk in a morass; and the same place is frequented for the same purpose during successive years; here they may be seen running about “like so many large rats,” puffing out their feathers, flapping their wings, and uttering the strangest cries. (2. With respect to the assemblages of the above named grouse, see Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ B. iv. s. 350; also L. Lloyd, ‘Game Birds of Sweden,’ 1867, pp. 19, 78. Richardson, ‘Fauna Bor. Americana: Birds,’ p. 362. References in regard to the assemblages of other birds have already been given. On Paradisea, see Wallace, in ‘Annals and Mag. of Nat. Hist.’ vol. xx. 1857, p. 412. On the snipe, Lloyd, ibid. p. 221.)

Some of the above birds,–the black-cock, capercailzie, pheasant-grouse, ruff, solitary snipe, and perhaps others,–are, as is believed, polygamists. With such birds it might have been thought that the stronger males would simply have driven away the weaker, and then at once have taken possession of as many females as possible; but if it be indispensable for the male to excite or please the female, we can understand the length of the courtship and the congregation of so many individuals of both sexes at the same spot. Certain strictly monogamous species likewise hold nuptial assemblages; this seems to be the case in Scandinavia with one of the ptarmigans, and their leks last from the middle of March to the middle of May. In Australia the lyre-bird (Menura superba) forms “small round hillocks,” and the M. Alberti scratches for itself shallow holes, or, as they are called by the natives, “corroborying places,” where it is believed both sexes assemble. The meetings of the M. superba are sometimes very large; and an account has lately been published (3. Quoted by Mr. T.W. Wood, in the ‘Student,’ April 1870, p. 125.) by a traveller, who heard in a valley beneath him, thickly covered with scrub, “a din which completely astonished” him; on crawling onwards he beheld, to his amazement, about one hundred and fifty of the magnificent lyre-cocks, “ranged in order of battle, and fighting with indescribable fury.” The bowers of the Bower-birds are the resort of both sexes during the breeding-season; and “here the males meet and contend with each other for the favours of the female, and here the latter assemble and coquet with the males.” With two of the genera, the same bower is resorted to during many years. (4. Gould, ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. pp. 300, 308, 448, 451. On the ptarmigan, above alluded to, see Lloyd, ibid. p. 129.)

The common magpie (Corvus pica, Linn.), as I have been informed by the Rev. W. Darwin Fox, used to assemble from all parts of Delamere Forest, in order to celebrate the “great magpie marriage.” Some years ago these birds abounded in extraordinary numbers, so that a gamekeeper killed in one morning nineteen males, and another killed by a single shot seven birds at roost together. They then had the habit of assembling very early in the spring at particular spots, where they could be seen in flocks, chattering, sometimes fighting, bustling and flying about the trees. The whole affair was evidently considered by the birds as one of the highest importance. Shortly after the meeting they all separated, and were then observed by Mr. Fox and others to be paired for the season. In any district in which a species does not exist in large numbers, great assemblages cannot, of course, be held, and the same species may have different habits in different countries. For instance, I have heard of only one instance, from Mr. Wedderburn, of a regular assemblage of black game in Scotland, yet these assemblages are so well known in Germany and Scandinavia that they have received special names.

Unpaired Birds

From the facts now given, we may conclude that the courtship of birds belonging to widely different groups, is often a prolonged, delicate, and troublesome affair. There is even reason to suspect, improbable as this will at first appear, that some males and females of the same species, inhabiting the same district, do not always please each other, and consequently do not pair. Many accounts have been published of either the male or female of a pair having been shot, and quickly replaced by another. This has been observed more frequently with the magpie than with any other bird, owing perhaps to its conspicuous appearance and nest. The illustrious Jenner states that in Wiltshire one of a pair was daily shot no less than seven times successively, “but all to no purpose, for the remaining magpie soon found another mate”; and the last pair reared their young. A new partner is generally found on the succeeding day; but Mr. Thompson gives the case of one being replaced on the evening of the same day. Even after the eggs are hatched, if one of the old birds is destroyed a mate will often be found; this occurred after an interval of two days, in a case recently observed by one of Sir J. Lubbock’s keepers. (5. On magpies, Jenner, in ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1824, p. 21. Macgillivray, ‘Hist. British Birds,’ vol. i. p. 570. Thompson, in ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History,’ vol. viii. 1842, p. 494.) The first and most obvious conjecture is that male magpies must be much more numerous than females; and that in the above cases, as well as in many others which could be given, the males alone had been killed. This apparently holds good in some instances, for the gamekeepers in Delamere Forest assured Mr. Fox that the magpies and carrion-crows which they formerly killed in succession in large numbers near their nests, were all males; and they accounted for this fact by the males being easily killed whilst bringing food to the sitting females. Macgillivray, however, gives, on the authority of an excellent observer, an instance of three magpies successively killed on the same nest, which were all females; and another case of six magpies successively killed whilst sitting on the same eggs, which renders it probable that most of them were females; though, as I hear from Mr. Fox, the male will sit on the eggs when the female is killed.

Sir J. Lubbock’s gamekeeper has repeatedly shot, but how often he could not say, one of a pair of jays (Garrulus glandarius), and has never failed shortly afterwards to find the survivor re-matched. Mr. Fox, Mr. F. Bond, and others have shot one of a pair of carrion-crows (Corvus corone), but the nest was soon again tenanted by a pair. These birds are rather common; but the peregrine-falcon (Falco peregrinus) is rare, yet Mr. Thompson states that in Ireland “if either an old male or female be killed in the breeding-season (not an uncommon circumstance), another mate is found within a very few days, so that the eyries, notwithstanding such casualties, are sure to turn out their complement of young.” Mr. Jenner Weir has known the same thing with the peregrine-falcons at Beachy Head. The same observer informs me that three kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), all males, were killed one after the other whilst attending the same nest; two of these were in mature plumage, but the third was in the plumage of the previous year. Even with the rare golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Mr. Birkbeck was assured by a trustworthy gamekeeper in Scotland, that if one is killed, another is soon found. So with the white owl (Strix flammea), “the survivor readily found a mate, and the mischief went on.”

White of Selborne, who gives the case of the owl, adds that he knew a man, who from believing that partridges when paired were disturbed by the males fighting, used to shoot them; and though he had widowed the same female several times, she always soon found a fresh partner. This same naturalist ordered the sparrows, which deprived the house-martins of their nests, to be shot; but the one which was left, “be it cock or hen, presently procured a mate, and so for several times following.” I could add analogous cases relating to the chaffinch, nightingale, and redstart. With respect to the latter bird (Phoenicura ruticilla), a writer expresses much surprise how the sitting female could so soon have given effectual notice that she was a widow, for the species was not common in the neighbourhood. Mr. Jenner Weir has mentioned to me a nearly similar case; at Blackheath he never sees or hears the note of the wild bullfinch, yet when one of his caged males has died, a wild one in the course of a few days has generally come and perched near the widowed female, whose call-note is not loud. I will give only one other fact, on the authority of this same observer; one of a pair of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) was shot in the morning; by noon a new mate was found; this was again shot, but before night the pair was complete; so that the disconsolate widow or widower was thrice consoled during the same day. Mr. Engleheart also informs me that he used during several years to shoot one of a pair of starlings which built in a hole in a house at Blackheath; but the loss was always immediately repaired. During one season he kept an account, and found that he had shot thirty-five birds from the same nest; these consisted of both males and females, but in what proportion he could not say: nevertheless, after all this destruction, a brood was reared. (6. On the peregrine falcon, see Thompson, ‘Nat. Hist. of Ireland: Birds,’ vol. i. 1849, p. 39. On owls, sparrows, and partridges, see White, ‘Nat. Hist. of Selborne,’ edit. of 1825, vol. i. p. 139. On the Phoenicura, see Loudon’s ‘Mag. of Nat. Hist.’ vol. vii. 1834, p. 245. Brehm (‘Thierleben,’ B. iv. s. 991) also alludes to cases of birds thrice mated during the same day.)

These facts well deserve attention. How is it that there are birds enough ready to replace immediately a lost mate of either sex? Magpies, jays, carrion-crows, partridges, and some other birds, are always seen during the spring in pairs, and never by themselves; and these offer at first sight the most perplexing cases. But birds of the same sex, although of course not truly paired, sometimes live in pairs or in small parties, as is known to be the case with pigeons and partridges. Birds also sometimes live in triplets, as has been observed with starlings, carrion-crows, parrots, and partridges. With partridges two females have been known to live with one male, and two males with one female. In all such cases it is probable that the union would be easily broken; and one of the three would readily pair with a widow or widower. The males of certain birds may occasionally be heard pouring forth their love-song long after the proper time, shewing that they have either lost or never gained a mate. Death from accident or disease of one of a pair would leave the other free and single; and there is reason to believe that female birds during the breeding-season are especially liable to premature death. Again, birds which have had their nests destroyed, or barren pairs, or retarded individuals, would easily be induced to desert their mates, and would probably be glad to take what share they could of the pleasures and duties of rearing offspring although not their own. (7. See White (‘Nat. Hist. of Selborne,’ 1825, vol. i. p. 140) on the existence, early in the season, of small coveys of male partridges, of which fact I have heard other instances. See Jenner, on the retarded state of the generative organs in certain birds, in ‘Phil. Transact.’ 1824. In regard to birds living in triplets, I owe to Mr. Jenner Weir the cases of the starlings and parrots, and to Mr. Fox, of partridges; on carrion-crows, see the ‘Field,’ 1868, p. 415. On various male birds singing after the proper period, see Rev. L. Jenyns, ‘Observations in Natural History,’ 1846, p. 87.) Such contingencies as these probably explain most of the foregoing cases. (8. The following case has been given (‘The Times,’ Aug. 6, 1868) by the Rev. F.O. Morris, on the authority of the Hon. and Rev. O.W. Forester. “The gamekeeper here found a hawk’s nest this year, with five young ones on it. He took four and killed them, but left one with its wings clipped as a decoy to destroy the old ones by. They were both shot next day, in the act of feeding the young one, and the keeper thought it was done with. The next day he came again and found two other charitable hawks, who had come with an adopted feeling to succour the orphan. These two he killed, and then left the nest. On returning afterwards he found two more charitable individuals on the same errand of mercy. One of these he killed; the other he also shot, but could not find. No more came on the like fruitless errand.”) Nevertheless, it is a strange fact that within the same district, during the height of the breeding-season, there should be so many males and females always ready to repair the loss of a mated bird. Why do not such spare birds immediately pair together? Have we not some reason to suspect, and the suspicion has occurred to Mr. Jenner Weir, that as the courtship of birds appears to be in many cases prolonged and tedious, so it occasionally happens that certain males and females do not succeed, during the proper season, in exciting each other’s love, and consequently do not pair? This suspicion will appear somewhat less improbable after we have seen what strong antipathies and preferences female birds occasionally evince towards particular males.

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