The Descent of Man – Day 120 of 151

Class V

When the adults of both sexes have a distinct winter and summer plumage, whether or not the male differs from the female, the young resemble the adults of both sexes in their winter dress, or much more rarely in their summer dress, or they resemble the females alone. Or the young may have an intermediate character; or, again, they may differ greatly from the adults in both their seasonal plumages.

The cases in this class are singularly complex; nor is this surprising, as they depend on inheritance, limited in a greater or less degree in three different ways, namely, by sex, age, and the season of the year. In some cases the individuals of the same species pass through at least five distinct states of plumage. With the species, in which the male differs from the female during the summer season alone, or, which is rarer, during both seasons (41. For illustrative cases, see vol. iv. of Macgillivray’s ‘History of British Birds;’ on Tringa, etc., pp. 229, 271; on the Machetes, p. 172; on the Charadrius hiaticula, p. 118; on the Charadrius pluvialis, p. 94.), the young generally resemble the females,–as with the so-called goldfinch of North America, and apparently with the splendid Maluri of Australia. (42. For the goldfinch of N. America, Fringilla tristis, Linn., see Audubon, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. i. p. 172. For the Maluri, Gould’s ‘Handbook of the Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. p. 318.) With those species, the sexes of which are alike during both the summer and winter, the young may resemble the adults, firstly, in their winter dress; secondly, and this is of much rarer occurrence, in their summer dress; thirdly, they may be intermediate between these two states; and, fourthly, they may differ greatly from the adults at all seasons. We have an instance of the first of these four cases in one of the egrets of India (Buphus coromandus), in which the young and the adults of both sexes are white during the winter, the adults becoming golden-buff during the summer.

With the gaper (Anastomus oscitans) of India we have a similar case, but the colours are reversed: for the young and the adults of both sexes are grey and black during the winter, the adults becoming white during the summer. (43. I am indebted to Mr. Blyth for information as to the Buphus; see also Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. p. 749. On the Anastomus, see Blyth, in ‘Ibis,’ 1867, p. 173.) As an instance of the second case, the young of the razor-bill (Alca torda, Linn.), in an early state of plumage, are coloured like the adults during the summer; and the young of the white-crowned sparrow of North America (Fringilla leucophrys), as soon as fledged, have elegant white stripes on their heads, which are lost by the young and the old during the winter. (44. On the Alca, see Macgillivray, ‘Hist. Brit. Birds,’ vol. v. p. 347. On the Fringilla leucophrys, Audubon, ibid. vol. ii. p. 89. I shall have hereafter to refer to the young of certain herons and egrets being white.) With respect to the third case, namely, that of the young having an intermediate character between the summer and winter adult plumages, Yarrell (45. ‘History of British Birds,’ vol. i. 1839, p. 159.) insists that this occurs with many waders. Lastly, in regard to the young differing greatly from both sexes in their adult summer and winter plumages, this occurs with some herons and egrets of North America and India,–the young alone being white.

I will make only a few remarks on these complicated cases. When the young resemble the females in their summer dress, or the adults of both sexes in their winter dress, the cases differ from those given under Classes I. and III. only in the characters originally acquired by the males during the breeding-season, having been limited in their transmission to the corresponding season. When the adults have a distinct summer and winter plumage, and the young differ from both, the case is more difficult to understand. We may admit as probable that the young have retained an ancient state of plumage; we can account by sexual selection for the summer or nuptial plumage of the adults, but how are we to account for their distinct winter plumage? If we could admit that this plumage serves in all cases as a protection, its acquirement would be a simple affair; but there seems no good reason for this admission. It may be suggested that the widely different conditions of life during the winter and summer have acted in a direct manner on the plumage; this may have had some effect, but I have not much confidence in so great a difference as we sometimes see between the two plumages, having been thus caused. A more probable explanation is, that an ancient style of plumage, partially modified through the transference of some characters from the summer plumage, has been retained by the adults during the winter. Finally, all the cases in our present class apparently depend on characters acquired by the adult males, having been variously limited in their transmission according to age, season, and sex; but it would not be worth while to attempt to follow out these complex relations.

Class VI

The young in their first plumage differ from each other according to sex; the young males resembling more or less closely the adult males, and the young females more or less closely the adult females.

The cases in the present class, though occurring in various groups, are not numerous; yet it seems the most natural thing that the young should at first somewhat resemble the adults of the same sex, and gradually become more and more like them. The adult male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) has a black head, that of the female being reddish-brown; and I am informed by Mr. Blyth, that the young of both sexes can be distinguished by this character even as nestlings. In the family of thrushes an unusual number of similar cases have been noticed; thus, the male blackbird (Turdus merula) can be distinguished in the nest from the female. The two sexes of the mocking bird (Turdus polyglottus, Linn.) differ very little from each other, yet the males can easily be distinguished at a very early age from the females by showing more pure white. (46. Audubon, ‘Ornith. Biography,’ vol. i. p. 113.) The males of a forest-thrush and of a rock-thrush (Orocetes erythrogastra and Petrocincla cyanea) have much of their plumage of a fine blue, whilst the females are brown; and the nestling males of both species have their main wing and tail-feathers edged with blue whilst those of the female are edged with brown. (47. Mr. C.A. Wright, in ‘Ibis,’ vol. vi. 1864, p. 65. Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. i. p. 515. See also on the blackbird, Blyth in Charlesworth’s ‘Magazine of Natural History,’ vol. i. 1837, p. 113.) In the young blackbird the wing-feathers assume their mature character and become black after the others; on the other hand, in the two species just named the wing-feathers become blue before the others. The most probable view with reference to the cases in the present class is that the males, differently from what occurs in Class I., have transmitted their colours to their male offspring at an earlier age than that at which they were first acquired; for, if the males had varied whilst quite young, their characters would probably have been transmitted to both sexes. (48. The following additional cases may be mentioned; the young males of Tanagra rubra can be distinguished from the young females (Audubon, ‘Ornith. Biography,’ vol. iv. p. 392), and so it is within the nestlings of a blue nuthatch, Dendrophila frontalis of India (Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. i. p. 389). Mr. Blyth also informs me that the sexes of the stonechat, Saxicola rubicola, are distinguishable at a very early age. Mr. Salvin gives (‘Proc. Zoolog. Soc.’ 1870, p. 206) the case of a humming-bird, like the following one of Eustephanus.)

In Aithurus polytmus, a humming-bird, the male is splendidly coloured black and green, and two of the tail-feathers are immensely lengthened; the female has an ordinary tail and inconspicuous colours; now the young males, instead of resembling the adult female, in accordance with the common rule, begin from the first to assume the colours proper to their sex, and their tail-feathers soon become elongated. I owe this information to Mr. Gould, who has given me the following more striking and as yet unpublished case. Two humming-birds belonging to the genus Eustephanus, both beautifully coloured, inhabit the small island of Juan Fernandez, and have always been ranked as specifically distinct. But it has lately been ascertained that the one which is of a rich chestnut-brown colour with a golden-red head, is the male, whilst the other which is elegantly variegated with green and white with a metallic green head is the female. Now the young from the first somewhat resemble the adults of the corresponding sex, the resemblance gradually becoming more and more complete.

In considering this last case, if as before we take the plumage of the young as our guide, it would appear that both sexes have been rendered beautiful independently; and not that one sex has partially transferred its beauty to the other. The male apparently has acquired his bright colours through sexual selection in the same manner as, for instance, the peacock or pheasant in our first class of cases; and the female in the same manner as the female Rhynchaea or Turnix in our second class of cases. But there is much difficulty in understanding how this could have been effected at the same time with the two sexes of the same species. Mr. Salvin states, as we have seen in the eighth chapter, that with certain humming-birds the males greatly exceed the females in number, whilst with other species inhabiting the same country the females greatly exceed the males. If, then, we might assume that during some former lengthened period the males of the Juan Fernandez species had greatly exceeded the females in number, but that during another lengthened period the females had far exceeded the males, we could understand how the males at one time, and the females at another, might have been rendered beautiful by the selection of the brighter coloured individuals of either sex; both sexes transmitting their characters to their young at a rather earlier age than usual. Whether this is the true explanation I will not pretend to say; but the case is too remarkable to be passed over without notice.

We have now seen in all six classes, that an intimate relation exists between the plumage of the young and the adults, either of one sex or both. These relations are fairly well explained on the principle that one sex– this being in the great majority of cases the male–first acquired through variation and sexual selection bright colours or other ornaments, and transmitted them in various ways, in accordance with the recognised laws of inheritance. Why variations have occurred at different periods of life, even sometimes with species of the same group, we do not know, but with respect to the form of transmission, one important determining cause seems to be the age at which the variations first appear.

From the principle of inheritance at corresponding ages, and from any variations in colour which occurred in the males at an early age not being then selected–on the contrary being often eliminated as dangerous–whilst similar variations occurring at or near the period of reproduction have been preserved, it follows that the plumage of the young will often have been left unmodified, or but little modified. We thus get some insight into the colouring of the progenitors of our existing species. In a vast number of species in five out of our six classes of cases, the adults of one sex or of both are bright coloured, at least during the breeding-season, whilst the young are invariably less brightly coloured than the adults, or are quite dull coloured; for no instance is known, as far as I can discover, of the young of dull-coloured species displaying bright colours, or of the young of bright-coloured species being more brilliant than their parents. In the fourth class, however, in which the young and the old resemble each other, there are many species (though by no means all), of which the young are bright-coloured, and as these form old groups, we may infer that their early progenitors were likewise bright. With this exception, if we look to the birds of the world, it appears that their beauty has been much increased since that period, of which their immature plumage gives us a partial record.

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