The Descent of Man – Day 113 of 151

This way of viewing the relation, as far as it holds good, between the bright colours of female birds and their manner of nesting, receives some support from certain cases occurring in the Sahara Desert. Here, as in most other deserts, various birds, and many other animals, have had their colours adapted in a wonderful manner to the tints of the surrounding surface. Nevertheless there are, as I am informed by the Rev. Mr. Tristram, some curious exceptions to the rule; thus the male of the Monticola cyanea is conspicuous from his bright blue colour, and the female almost equally conspicuous from her mottled brown and white plumage; both sexes of two species of Dromolaea are of a lustrous black; so that these three species are far from receiving protection from their colours, yet they are able to survive, for they have acquired the habit of taking refuge from danger in holes or crevices in the rocks.

With respect to the above groups in which the females are conspicuously coloured and build concealed nests, it is not necessary to suppose that each separate species had its nidifying instinct specially modified; but only that the early progenitors of each group were gradually led to build domed or concealed nests, and afterwards transmitted this instinct, together with their bright colours, to their modified descendants. As far as it can be trusted, the conclusion is interesting, that sexual selection together with equal or nearly equal inheritance by both sexes, have indirectly determined the manner of nidification of whole groups of birds.

According to Mr. Wallace, even in the groups in which the females, from being protected in domed nests during incubation, have not had their bright colours eliminated through natural selection, the males often differ in a slight, and occasionally in a considerable degree from the females. This is a significant fact, for such differences in colour must be accounted for by some of the variations in the males having been from the first limited in transmission to the same sex; as it can hardly be maintained that these differences, especially when very slight, serve as a protection to the female. Thus all the species in the splendid group of the Trogons build in holes; and Mr. Gould gives figures (21. See his Monograph of the Trogonidae, 1st edition.) of both sexes of twenty-five species, in all of which, with one partial exception, the sexes differ sometimes slightly, sometimes conspicuously, in colour,–the males being always finer than the females, though the latter are likewise beautiful. All the species of kingfishers build in holes, and with most of the species the sexes are equally brilliant, and thus far Mr. Wallace’s rule holds good; but in some of the Australian species the colours of the females are rather less vivid than those of the male; and in one splendidly-coloured species, the sexes differ so much that they were at first thought to be specifically distinct. (22. Namely, Cyanalcyon, Gould’s ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. p. 133; see, also, pp. 130, 136.) Mr. R.B. Sharpe, who has especially studied this group, has shewn me some American species (Ceryle) in which the breast of the male is belted with black. Again, in Carcineutes, the difference between the sexes is conspicuous: in the male the upper surface is dull-blue banded with black, the lower surface being partly fawn-coloured, and there is much red about the head; in the female the upper surface is reddish-brown banded with black, and the lower surface white with black markings. It is an interesting fact, as shewing how the same peculiar style of sexual colouring often characterises allied forms, that in three species of Dacelo the male differs from the female only in the tail being dull-blue banded with black, whilst that of the female is brown with blackish bars; so that here the tail differs in colour in the two sexes in exactly the same manner as the whole upper surface in the two sexes of Carcineutes.

With parrots, which likewise build in holes, we find analogous cases: in most of the species, both sexes are brilliantly coloured and indistinguishable, but in not a few species the males are coloured rather more vividly than the females, or even very differently from them. Thus, besides other strongly-marked differences, the whole under surface of the male King Lory (Aprosmictus scapulatus) is scarlet, whilst the throat and chest of the female is green tinged with red: in the Euphema splendida there is a similar difference, the face and wing coverts moreover of the female being of a paler blue than in the male. (23. Every gradation of difference between the sexes may be followed in the parrots of Australia. See Gould’s ‘Handbook,’ etc., vol. ii. pp. 14-102.) In the family of the tits (Parinae), which build concealed nests, the female of our common blue tomtit (Parus caeruleus), is “much less brightly coloured” than the male: and in the magnificent Sultan yellow tit of India the difference is greater. (24. Macgillivray’s ‘British Birds,’ vol. ii. p. 433. Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. ii. p. 282.)

Again, in the great group of the woodpeckers (25. All the following facts are taken from M. Malherbe’s magnificent ‘Monographie des Picidees,’ 1861.), the sexes are generally nearly alike, but in the Megapicus validus all those parts of the head, neck, and breast, which are crimson in the male are pale brown in the female. As in several woodpeckers the head of the male is bright crimson, whilst that of the female is plain, it occurred to me that this colour might possibly make the female dangerously conspicuous, whenever she put her head out of the hole containing her nest, and consequently that this colour, in accordance with Mr. Wallace’s belief, had been eliminated. This view is strengthened by what Malherbe states with respect to Indopicus carlotta; namely, that the young females, like the young males, have some crimson about their heads, but that this colour disappears in the adult female, whilst it is intensified in the adult male. Nevertheless the following considerations render this view extremely doubtful: the male takes a fair share in incubation (26. Audubon’s ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. ii. p. 75; see also the ‘Ibis,’ vol. i. p. 268.), and would be thus almost equally exposed to danger; both sexes of many species have their heads of an equally bright crimson; in other species the difference between the sexes in the amount of scarlet is so slight that it can hardly make any appreciable difference in the danger incurred; and lastly, the colouring of the head in the two sexes often differs slightly in other ways.

The cases, as yet given, of slight and graduated differences in colour between the males and females in the groups, in which as a general rule the sexes resemble each other, all relate to species which build domed or concealed nests. But similar gradations may likewise be observed in groups in which the sexes as a general rule resemble each other, but which build open nests.

As I have before instanced the Australian parrots, so I may here instance, without giving any details, the Australian pigeons. (27. Gould’s ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia,’ vol. ii. pp. 109-149.) It deserves especial notice that in all these cases the slight differences in plumage between the sexes are of the same general nature as the occasionally greater differences. A good illustration of this fact has already been afforded by those kingfishers in which either the tail alone or the whole upper surface of the plumage differs in the same manner in the two sexes. Similar cases may be observed with parrots and pigeons. The differences in colour between the sexes of the same species are, also, of the same general nature as the differences in colour between the distinct species of the same group. For when in a group in which the sexes are usually alike, the male differs considerably from the female, he is not coloured in a quite new style. Hence we may infer that within the same group the special colours of both sexes when they are alike, and the colours of the male, when he differs slightly or even considerably from the female, have been in most cases determined by the same general cause; this being sexual selection.

It is not probable, as has already been remarked, that differences in colour between the sexes, when very slight, can be of service to the female as a protection. Assuming, however, that they are of service, they might be thought to be cases of transition; but we have no reason to believe that many species at any one time are undergoing change. Therefore we can hardly admit that the numerous females which differ very slightly in colour from their males are now all commencing to become obscure for the sake of protection. Even if we consider somewhat more marked sexual differences, is it probable, for instance, that the head of the female chaffinch,–the crimson on the breast of the female bullfinch,–the green of the female greenfinch,–the crest of the female golden-crested wren, have all been rendered less bright by the slow process of selection for the sake of protection? I cannot think so; and still less with the slight differences between the sexes of those birds which build concealed nests. On the other hand, the differences in colour between the sexes, whether great or small, may to a large extent be explained on the principle of the successive variations, acquired by the males through sexual selection, having been from the first more or less limited in their transmission to the females. That the degree of limitation should differ in different species of the same group will not surprise any one who has studied the laws of inheritance, for they are so complex that they appear to us in our ignorance to be capricious in their action. (28. See remarks to this effect in ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ vol. ii. chap. xii.)

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