The Descent of Man – Day 102 of 151

Mental Qualities of Birds, and Their Taste for the Beautiful

Before we further discuss the question whether the females select the more attractive males or accept the first whom they may encounter, it will be advisable briefly to consider the mental powers of birds. Their reason is generally, and perhaps justly, ranked as low; yet some facts could be given leading to an opposite conclusion. (9. I am indebted to Prof. Newton for the following passage from Mr. Adam’s ‘Travels of a Naturalist,’ 1870, p. 278. Speaking of Japanese nut-hatches in confinement, he says: “Instead of the more yielding fruit of the yew, which is the usual food of the nut-hatch of Japan, at one time I substituted hard hazel-nuts. As the bird was unable to crack them, he placed them one by one in his water-glass, evidently with the notion that they would in time become softer–an interesting proof of intelligence on the part of these birds.”) Low powers of reasoning, however, are compatible, as we see with mankind, with strong affections, acute perception, and a taste for the beautiful; and it is with these latter qualities that we are here concerned. It has often been said that parrots become so deeply attached to each other that when one dies the other pines for a long time; but Mr. Jenner Weir thinks that with most birds the strength of their affection has been much exaggerated. Nevertheless when one of a pair in a state of nature has been shot, the survivor has been heard for days afterwards uttering a plaintive call; and Mr. St. John gives various facts proving the attachment of mated birds. (10. ‘A Tour in Sutherlandshire,’ vol. i. 1849, p. 185. Dr. Buller says (‘Birds of New Zealand,’ 1872, p. 56) that a male King Lory was killed; and the female “fretted and moped, refused her food, and died of a broken heart.”) Mr. Bennett relates (11. ‘Wanderings in New South Wales,’ vol. ii. 1834, p. 62.) that in China after a drake of the beautiful mandarin Teal had been stolen, the duck remained disconsolate, though sedulously courted by another mandarin drake, who displayed before her all his charms. After an interval of three weeks the stolen drake was recovered, and instantly the pair recognised each other with extreme joy. On the other hand, starlings, as we have seen, may be consoled thrice in the same day for the loss of their mates. Pigeons have such excellent local memories, that they have been known to return to their former homes after an interval of nine months, yet, as I hear from Mr. Harrison Weir, if a pair which naturally would remain mated for life be separated for a few weeks during the winter, and afterwards matched with other birds, the two when brought together again, rarely, if ever, recognise each other.

Birds sometimes exhibit benevolent feelings; they will feed the deserted young ones even of distinct species, but this perhaps ought to be considered as a mistaken instinct. They will feed, as shewn in an earlier part of this work, adult birds of their own species which have become blind. Mr. Buxton gives a curious account of a parrot which took care of a frost-bitten and crippled bird of a distinct species, cleansed her feathers, and defended her from the attacks of the other parrots which roamed freely about his garden. It is a still more curious fact that these birds apparently evince some sympathy for the pleasures of their fellows. When a pair of cockatoos made a nest in an acacia tree, “it was ridiculous to see the extravagant interest taken in the matter by the others of the same species.” These parrots, also, evinced unbounded curiosity, and clearly had “the idea of property and possession.” (12. ‘Acclimatization of Parrots,’ by C. Buxton, M.P., ‘Annals and Mag. of Nat. Hist.’ Nov. 1868, p. 381.) They have good memories, for in the Zoological Gardens they have plainly recognised their former masters after an interval of some months.

Birds possess acute powers of observation. Every mated bird, of course, recognises its fellow. Audubon states that a certain number of mocking-thrushes (Mimus polyglottus) remain all the year round in Louisiana, whilst others migrate to the Eastern States; these latter, on their return, are instantly recognised, and always attacked, by their southern brethren. Birds under confinement distinguish different persons, as is proved by the strong and permanent antipathy or affection which they shew, without any apparent cause, towards certain individuals. I have heard of numerous instances with jays, partridges, canaries, and especially bullfinches. Mr. Hussey has described in how extraordinary a manner a tamed partridge recognised everybody: and its likes and dislikes were very strong. This bird seemed “fond of gay colours, and no new gown or cap could be put on without catching his attention.” (13. The ‘Zoologist,’ 1847-48, p. 1602.) Mr. Hewitt has described the habits of some ducks (recently descended from wild birds), which, at the approach of a strange dog or cat, would rush headlong into the water, and exhaust themselves in their attempts to escape; but they knew Mr. Hewitt’s own dogs and cats so well that they would lie down and bask in the sun close to them. They always moved away from a strange man, and so they would from the lady who attended them if she made any great change in her dress. Audubon relates that he reared and tamed a wild turkey which always ran away from any strange dog; this bird escaped into the woods, and some days afterwards Audubon saw, as he thought, a wild turkey, and made his dog chase it; but, to his astonishment, the bird did not run away, and the dog, when he came up, did not attack the bird, for they mutually recognised each other as old friends. (14. Hewitt on wild ducks, ‘Journal of Horticulture,’ Jan. 13, 1863, p. 39. Audubon on the wild turkey, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. i. p. 14. On the mocking-thrush, ibid. vol. i. p. 110.)

Mr. Jenner Weir is convinced that birds pay particular attention to the colours of other birds, sometimes out of jealousy, and sometimes as a sign of kinship. Thus he turned a reed-bunting (Emberiza schoeniculus), which had acquired its black head-dress, into his aviary, and the new-comer was not noticed by any bird, except by a bullfinch, which is likewise black-headed. This bullfinch was a very quiet bird, and had never before quarrelled with any of its comrades, including another reed-bunting, which had not as yet become black-headed: but the reed-bunting with a black head was so unmercifully treated that it had to be removed. Spiza cyanea, during the breeding-season, is of a bright blue colour; and though generally peaceable, it attacked S. ciris, which has only the head blue, and completely scalped the unfortunate bird. Mr. Weir was also obliged to turn out a robin, as it fiercely attacked all the birds in his aviary with any red in their plumage, but no other kinds; it actually killed a red-breasted crossbill, and nearly killed a goldfinch. On the other band, he has observed that some birds, when first introduced, fly towards the species which resemble them most in colour, and settle by their sides.

As male birds display their fine plumage and other ornaments with so much care before the females, it is obviously probable that these appreciate the beauty of their suitors. It is, however, difficult to obtain direct evidence of their capacity to appreciate beauty. When birds gaze at themselves in a looking-glass (of which many instances have been recorded) we cannot feel sure that it is not from jealousy of a supposed rival, though this is not the conclusion of some observers. In other cases it is difficult to distinguish between mere curiosity and admiration. It is perhaps the former feeling which, as stated by Lord Lilford (15. The ‘Ibis,’ vol. ii. 1860, p. 344.), attracts the ruff towards any bright object, so that, in the Ionian Islands, “it will dart down to a bright-coloured handkerchief, regardless of repeated shots.” The common lark is drawn down from the sky, and is caught in large numbers, by a small mirror made to move and glitter in the sun. Is it admiration or curiosity which leads the magpie, raven, and some other birds to steal and secrete bright objects, such as silver articles or jewels?

Mr. Gould states that certain humming-birds decorate the outsides of their nests “with the utmost taste; they instinctively fasten thereon beautiful pieces of flat lichen, the larger pieces in the middle, and the smaller on the part attached to the branch. Now and then a pretty feather is intertwined or fastened to the outer sides, the stem being always so placed that the feather stands out beyond the surface.” The best evidence, however, of a taste for the beautiful is afforded by the three genera of Australian bower-birds already mentioned. Their bowers (Fig. 46), where the sexes congregate and play strange antics, are variously constructed, but what most concerns us is, that they are decorated by the several species in a different manner. The Satin bower-bird collects gaily-coloured articles, such as the blue tail-feathers of parrakeets, bleached bones and shells, which it sticks between the twigs or arranges at the entrance. Mr. Gould found in one bower a neatly-worked stone tomahawk and a slip of blue cotton, evidently procured from a native encampment. These objects are continually re-arranged, and carried about by the birds whilst at play. The bower of the Spotted bower-bird “is beautifully lined with tall grasses, so disposed that the heads nearly meet, and the decorations are very profuse.” Round stones are used to keep the grass-stems in their proper places, and to make divergent paths leading to the bower. The stones and shells are often brought from a great distance. The Regent bird, as described by Mr. Ramsay, ornaments its short bower with bleached land-shells belonging to five or six species, and with “berries of various colours, blue, red, and black, which give it when fresh a very pretty appearance. Besides these there were several newly-picked leaves and young shoots of a pinkish colour, the whole showing a decided taste for the beautiful.” Well may Mr. Gould say that “these highly decorated halls of assembly must be regarded as the most wonderful instances of bird-architecture yet discovered;” and the taste, as we see, of the several species certainly differs. (16. On the ornamented nests of humming-birds, Gould, ‘Introduction to the Trochilidae,’ 1861, p. 19. On the bower-birds, Gould, ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia,’ 1865, vol. i. pp. 444-461. Ramsay, in the ‘Ibis,’ 1867, p. 456.)

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