The Descent of Man – Day 114 of 151

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.)

As far as I can discover there are few large groups of birds in which all the species have both sexes alike and brilliantly coloured, but I hear from Mr. Sclater, that this appears to be the case with the Musophagae or plantain-eaters. Nor do I believe that any large group exists in which the sexes of all the species are widely dissimilar in colour: Mr. Wallace informs me that the chatterers of S. America (Cotingidae) offer one of the best instances; but with some of the species, in which the male has a splendid red breast, the female exhibits some red on her breast; and the females of other species shew traces of the green and other colours of the males. Nevertheless we have a near approach to close sexual similarity or dissimilarity throughout several groups: and this, from what has just been said of the fluctuating nature of inheritance, is a somewhat surprising circumstance. But that the same laws should largely prevail with allied animals is not surprising. The domestic fowl has produced a great number of breeds and sub-breeds, and in these the sexes generally differ in plumage; so that it has been noticed as an unusual circumstance when in certain sub-breeds they resemble each other. On the other hand, the domestic pigeon has likewise produced a vast number of distinct breeds and sub-breeds, and in these, with rare exceptions, the two sexes are identically alike.

Therefore if other species of Gallus and Columba were domesticated and varied, it would not be rash to predict that similar rules of sexual similarity and dissimilarity, depending on the form of transmission, would hold good in both cases. In like manner the same form of transmission has generally prevailed under nature throughout the same groups, although marked exceptions to this rule occur. Thus within the same family or even genus, the sexes may be identically alike, or very different in colour. Instances have already been given in the same genus, as with sparrows, fly-catchers, thrushes and grouse. In the family of pheasants the sexes of almost all the species are wonderfully dissimilar, but are quite alike in the eared pheasant or Crossoptilon auritum. In two species of Chloephaga, a genus of geese, the male cannot be distinguished from the females, except by size; whilst in two others, the sexes are so unlike that they might easily be mistaken for distinct species. (29. The ‘Ibis,’ vol. vi. 1864, p. 122.)

The laws of inheritance can alone account for the following cases, in which the female acquires, late in life, certain characters proper to the male, and ultimately comes to resemble him more or less completely. Here protection can hardly have come into play. Mr. Blyth informs me that the females of Oriolus melanocephalus and of some allied species, when sufficiently mature to breed, differ considerably in plumage from the adult males; but after the second or third moults they differ only in their beaks having a slight greenish tinge. In the dwarf bitterns (Ardetta), according to the same authority, “the male acquires his final livery at the first moult, the female not before the third or fourth moult; in the meanwhile she presents an intermediate garb, which is ultimately exchanged for the same livery as that of the male.” So again the female Falco peregrinus acquires her blue plumage more slowly than the male. Mr. Swinhoe states that with one of the Drongo shrikes (Dicrurus macrocercus) the male, whilst almost a nestling, moults his soft brown plumage and becomes of a uniform glossy greenish-black; but the female retains for a long time the white striae and spots on the axillary feathers; and does not completely assume the uniform black colour of the male for three years. The same excellent observer remarks that in the spring of the second year the female spoon-bill (Platalea) of China resembles the male of the first year, and that apparently it is not until the third spring that she acquires the same adult plumage as that possessed by the male at a much earlier age. The female Bombycilla carolinensis differs very little from the male, but the appendages, which like beads of red sealing-wax ornament the wing-feathers (30. When the male courts the female, these ornaments are vibrated, and “are shewn off to great advantage,” on the outstretched wings: A. Leith Adams, ‘Field and Forest Rambles,’ 1873, p. 153.), are not developed in her so early in life as in the male. In the male of an Indian parrakeet (Palaeornis javanicus) the upper mandible is coral-red from his earliest youth, but in the female, as Mr. Blyth has observed with caged and wild birds, it is at first black and does not become red until the bird is at least a year old, at which age the sexes resemble each other in all respects. Both sexes of the wild turkey are ultimately furnished with a tuft of bristles on the breast, but in two-year-old birds the tuft is about four inches long in the male and hardly apparent in the female; when, however, the latter has reached her fourth year, it is from four to five inches in length. (31. On Ardetta, Translation of Cuvier’s ‘Regne Animal,’ by Mr. Blyth, footnote, p. 159. On the Peregrine Falcon, Mr. Blyth, in Charlesworth’s ‘Mag. of Nat. Hist.’ vol. i. 1837, p. 304. On Dicrurus, ‘Ibis,’ 1863, p. 44. On the Platalea, ‘Ibis,’ vol. vi. 1864, p. 366. On the Bombycilla, Audubon’s ‘Ornitholog. Biography,’ vol. i. p. 229. On the Palaeornis, see, also, Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. i. p. 263. On the wild turkey, Audubon, ibid. vol. i. p. 15; but I hear from Judge Caton that in Illinois the female very rarely acquires a tuft. Analogous cases with the females of Petrocossyphus are given by Mr. R. Sharpe, ‘Proceedings of the Zoological Society,’ 1872, p. 496.)

These cases must not be confounded with those where diseased or old females abnormally assume masculine characters, nor with those where fertile females, whilst young, acquire the characters of the male, through variation or some unknown cause. (32. Of these latter cases Mr. Blyth has recorded (Translation of Cuvier’s ‘Regne Animal,’ p. 158) various instances with Lanius, Ruticilla, Linaria, and Anas. Audubon has also recorded a similar case (‘Ornitholog. Biography,’ vol. v. p. 519) with Pyranga aestiva.) But all these cases have so much in common that they depend, according to the hypothesis of pangenesis, on gemmules derived from each part of the male being present, though latent, in the female; their development following on some slight change in the elective affinities of her constituent tissues.

A few words must be added on changes of plumage in relation to the season of the year. From reasons formerly assigned there can be little doubt that the elegant plumes, long pendant feathers, crests, etc., of egrets, herons, and many other birds, which are developed and retained only during the summer, serve for ornamental and nuptial purposes, though common to both sexes. The female is thus rendered more conspicuous during the period of incubation than during the winter; but such birds as herons and egrets would be able to defend themselves. As, however, plumes would probably be inconvenient and certainly of no use during the winter, it is possible that the habit of moulting twice in the year may have been gradually acquired through natural selection for the sake of casting off inconvenient ornaments during the winter. But this view cannot be extended to the many waders, whose summer and winter plumages differ very little in colour. With defenceless species, in which both sexes, or the males alone, become extremely conspicuous during the breeding-season,–or when the males acquire at this season such long wing or tail-feathers as to impede their flight, as with Cosmetornis and Vidua,–it certainly at first appears highly probable that the second moult has been gained for the special purpose of throwing off these ornaments. We must, however, remember that many birds, such as some of the Birds of Paradise, the Argus pheasant and peacock, do not cast their plumes during the winter; and it can hardly be maintained that the constitution of these birds, at least of the Gallinaceae, renders a double moult impossible, for the ptarmigan moults thrice in the year. (33. See Gould’s ‘Birds of Great Britain.’) Hence it must be considered as doubtful whether the many species which moult their ornamental plumes or lose their bright colours during the winter, have acquired this habit on account of the inconvenience or danger which they would otherwise have suffered.

I conclude, therefore, that the habit of moulting twice in the year was in most or all cases first acquired for some distinct purpose, perhaps for gaining a warmer winter covering; and that variations in the plumage occurring during the summer were accumulated through sexual selection, and transmitted to the offspring at the same season of the year; that such variations were inherited either by both sexes or by the males alone, according to the form of inheritance which prevailed. This appears more probable than that the species in all cases originally tended to retain their ornamental plumage during the winter, but were saved from this through natural selection, resulting from the inconvenience or danger thus caused.

I have endeavoured in this chapter to shew that the arguments are not trustworthy in favour of the view that weapons, bright colours, and various ornaments, are now confined to the males owing to the conversion, by natural selection, of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes, into transmission to the male sex alone. It is also doubtful whether the colours of many female birds are due to the preservation, for the sake of protection, of variations which were from the first limited in their transmission to the female sex. But it will be convenient to defer any further discussion on this subject until I treat, in the following chapter, of the differences in plumage between the young and old.

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