The Descent of Man – Day 103 of 151

Preference for Particular Males by the Females

Having made these preliminary remarks on the discrimination and taste of birds, I will give all the facts known to me which bear on the preference shewn by the female for particular males. It is certain that distinct species of birds occasionally pair in a state of nature and produce hybrids. Many instances could be given: thus Macgillivray relates how a male blackbird and female thrush “fell in love with each other,” and produced offspring. (17. ‘History of Brit. Birds,’ vol. ii. p. 92.) Several years ago eighteen cases had been recorded of the occurrence in Great Britain of hybrids between the black grouse and pheasant (18. ‘Zoologist,’ 1853-1854, p. 3946.); but most of these cases may perhaps be accounted for by solitary birds not finding one of their own species to pair with. With other birds, as Mr. Jenner Weir has reason to believe, hybrids are sometimes the result of the casual intercourse of birds building in close proximity. But these remarks do not apply to the many recorded instances of tamed or domestic birds, belonging to distinct species, which have become absolutely fascinated with each other, although living with their own species. Thus Waterton (19. Waterton, ‘Essays on Nat. Hist.’ 2nd series, pp. 42 and 117. For the following statements see on the wigeon, ‘Loudon’s Mag. of Nat. Hist.’ vol. ix. p. 616; L. Lloyd, ‘Scandinavian Adventures,’ vol. i. 1854, p. 452. Dixon, ‘Ornamental and Domestic Poultry,’ p. 137; Hewitt, in ‘Journal of Horticulture,’ Jan. 13, 1863, p. 40; Bechstein, ‘Stubenvogel,’ 1840, s. 230. Mr. J. Jenner Weir has lately given me an analogous case with ducks of two species.) states that out of a flock of twenty-three Canada geese, a female paired with a solitary Bernicle gander, although so different in appearance and size; and they produced hybrid offspring. A male wigeon (Mareca penelope), living with females of the same species, has been known to pair with a pintail duck, Querquedula acuta. Lloyd describes the remarkable attachment between a shield-drake (Tadorna vulpanser) and a common duck. Many additional instances could be given; and the Rev. E.S. Dixon remarks that “those who have kept many different species of geese together well know what unaccountable attachments they are frequently forming, and that they are quite as likely to pair and rear young with individuals of a race (species) apparently the most alien to themselves as with their own stock.”

The Rev. W.D. Fox informs me that he possessed at the same time a pair of Chinese geese (Anser cygnoides), and a common gander with three geese. The two lots kept quite separate, until the Chinese gander seduced one of the common geese to live with him. Moreover, of the young birds hatched from the eggs of the common geese, only four were pure, the other eighteen proving hybrids; so that the Chinese gander seems to have had prepotent charms over the common gander. I will give only one other case; Mr. Hewitt states that a wild duck, reared in captivity, “after breeding a couple of seasons with her own mallard, at once shook him off on my placing a male Pintail on the water. It was evidently a case of love at first sight, for she swam about the new-comer caressingly, though he appeared evidently alarmed and averse to her overtures of affection. From that hour she forgot her old partner. Winter passed by, and the next spring the pintail seemed to have become a convert to her blandishments, for they nested and produced seven or eight young ones.”

What the charm may have been in these several cases, beyond mere novelty, we cannot even conjecture. Colour, however, sometimes comes into play; for in order to raise hybrids from the siskin (Fringilla spinus) and the canary, it is much the best plan, according to Bechstein, to place birds of the same tint together. Mr. Jenner Weir turned a female canary into his aviary, where there were male linnets, goldfinches, siskins, greenfinches, chaffinches, and other birds, in order to see which she would choose; but there never was any doubt, and the greenfinch carried the day. They paired and produced hybrid offspring.

The fact of the female preferring to pair with one male rather than with another of the same species is not so likely to excite attention, as when this occurs, as we have just seen, between distinct species. The former cases can best be observed with domesticated or confined birds; but these are often pampered by high feeding, and sometimes have their instincts vitiated to an extreme degree. Of this latter fact I could give sufficient proofs with pigeons, and especially with fowls, but they cannot be here related. Vitiated instincts may also account for some of the hybrid unions above mentioned; but in many of these cases the birds were allowed to range freely over large ponds, and there is no reason to suppose that they were unnaturally stimulated by high feeding.

With respect to birds in a state of nature, the first and most obvious supposition which will occur to every one is that the female at the proper season accepts the first male whom she may encounter; but she has at least the opportunity for exerting a choice, as she is almost invariably pursued by many males. Audubon–and we must remember that he spent a long life in prowling about the forests of the United States and observing the birds– does not doubt that the female deliberately chooses her mate; thus, speaking of a woodpecker, he says the hen is followed by half-a-dozen gay suitors, who continue performing strange antics, “until a marked preference is shewn for one.” The female of the red-winged starling (Agelaeus phoeniceus) is likewise pursued by several males, “until, becoming fatigued, she alights, receives their addresses, and soon makes a choice.” He describes also how several male night-jars repeatedly plunge through the air with astonishing rapidity, suddenly turning, and thus making a singular noise; “but no sooner has the female made her choice than the other males are driven away.” With one of the vultures (Cathartes aura) of the United States, parties of eight, ten, or more males and females assemble on fallen logs, “exhibiting the strongest desire to please mutually,” and after many caresses, each male leads off his partner on the wing. Audubon likewise carefully observed the wild flocks of Canada geese (Anser canadensis), and gives a graphic description of their love-antics; he says that the birds which had been previously mated “renewed their courtship as early as the month of January, while the others would be contending or coquetting for hours every day, until all seemed satisfied with the choice they had made, after which, although they remained together, any person could easily perceive that they were careful to keep in pairs. I have observed also that the older the birds the shorter were the preliminaries of their courtship. The bachelors and old maids whether in regret, or not caring to be disturbed by the bustle, quietly moved aside and lay down at some distance from the rest.” (20. Audubon, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. i. pp. 191, 349; vol. ii. pp. 42, 275; vol. iii. p. 2.) Many similar statements with respect to other birds could be cited from this same observer.

Turning now to domesticated and confined birds, I will commence by giving what little I have learnt respecting the courtship of fowls. I have received long letters on this subject from Messrs. Hewitt and Tegetmeier, and almost an essay from the late Mr. Brent. It will be admitted by every one that these gentlemen, so well known from their published works, are careful and experienced observers. They do not believe that the females prefer certain males on account of the beauty of their plumage; but some allowance must be made for the artificial state under which these birds have long been kept. Mr. Tegetmeier is convinced that a gamecock, though disfigured by being dubbed and with his hackles trimmed, would be accepted as readily as a male retaining all his natural ornaments. Mr. Brent, however, admits that the beauty of the male probably aids in exciting the female; and her acquiescence is necessary. Mr. Hewitt is convinced that the union is by no means left to mere chance, for the female almost invariably prefers the most vigorous, defiant, and mettlesome male; hence it is almost useless, as he remarks, “to attempt true breeding if a game-cock in good health and condition runs the locality, for almost every hen on leaving the roosting-place will resort to the game-cock, even though that bird may not actually drive away the male of her own variety.” Under ordinary circumstances the males and females of the fowl seem to come to a mutual understanding by means of certain gestures, described to me by Mr. Brent. But hens will often avoid the officious attentions of young males. Old hens, and hens of a pugnacious disposition, as the same writer informs me, dislike strange males, and will not yield until well beaten into compliance. Ferguson, however, describes how a quarrelsome hen was subdued by the gentle courtship of a Shanghai cock. (21. ‘Rare and Prize Poultry,’ 1854, p. 27.)

There is reason to believe that pigeons of both sexes prefer pairing with birds of the same breed; and dovecot-pigeons dislike all the highly improved breeds. (22. ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ vol. ii. p. 103.) Mr. Harrison Weir has lately heard from a trustworthy observer, who keeps blue pigeons, that these drive away all other coloured varieties, such as white, red, and yellow; and from another observer, that a female dun carrier could not, after repeated trials, be matched with a black male, but immediately paired with a dun. Again, Mr. Tegetmeier had a female blue turbit that obstinately refused to pair with two males of the same breed, which were successively shut up with her for weeks; but on being let out she would have immediately accepted the first blue dragon that offered. As she was a valuable bird, she was then shut up for many weeks with a silver (i.e., very pale blue) male, and at last mated with him. Nevertheless, as a general rule, colour appears to have little influence on the pairing of pigeons. Mr. Tegetmeier, at my request, stained some of his birds with magenta, but they were not much noticed by the others.

Female pigeons occasionally feel a strong antipathy towards certain males, without any assignable cause. Thus MM. Boitard and Corbie, whose experience extended over forty-five years, state: “Quand une femelle eprouve de l’antipathie pour un male avec lequel on veut l’accoupler, malgre tous les feux de l’amour, malgre l’alpiste et le chenevis dont on la nourrit pour augmenter son ardeur, malgre un emprisonnement de six mois et meme d’un an, elle refuse constamment ses caresses; les avances empressees, les agaceries, les tournoiemens, les tendres roucoulemens, rien ne peut lui plaire ni l’emouvoir; gonflee, boudeuse, blottie dans un coin de sa prison, elle n’en sort que pour boire et manger, ou pour repousser avec une espece de rage des caresses devenues trop pressantes.” (23. Boitard and Corbie, ‘Les Pigeons,’ etc., 1824, p. 12. Prosper Lucas (‘Traite de l’Hered. Nat.’ tom. ii. 1850, p. 296) has himself observed nearly similar facts with pigeons.) On the other hand, Mr. Harrison Weir has himself observed, and has heard from several breeders, that a female pigeon will occasionally take a strong fancy for a particular male, and will desert her own mate for him. Some females, according to another experienced observer, Riedel (24. Die Taubenzucht, 1824, s. 86.), are of a profligate disposition, and prefer almost any stranger to their own mate. Some amorous males, called by our English fanciers “gay birds,” are so successful in their gallantries, that, as Mr. H. Weir informs me, they must be shut up on account of the mischief which they cause.

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