The Descent of Man – Day 122 of 151

Summary of the Four Chapters on Birds

Most male birds are highly pugnacious during the breeding-season, and some possess weapons adapted for fighting with their rivals. But the most pugnacious and the best armed males rarely or never depend for success solely on their power to drive away or kill their rivals, but have special means for charming the female. With some it is the power of song, or of giving forth strange cries, or instrumental music, and the males in consequence differ from the females in their vocal organs, or in the structure of certain feathers. From the curiously diversified means for producing various sounds, we gain a high idea of the importance of this means of courtship. Many birds endeavour to charm the females by love-dances or antics, performed on the ground or in the air, and sometimes at prepared places. But ornaments of many kinds, the most brilliant tints, combs and wattles, beautiful plumes, elongated feathers, top-knots, and so forth, are by far the commonest means. In some cases mere novelty appears to have acted as a charm. The ornaments of the males must be highly important to them, for they have been acquired in not a few cases at the cost of increased danger from enemies, and even at some loss of power in fighting with their rivals. The males of very many species do not assume their ornamental dress until they arrive at maturity, or they assume it only during the breeding-season, or the tints then become more vivid. Certain ornamental appendages become enlarged, turgid, and brightly coloured during the act of courtship. The males display their charms with elaborate care and to the best effect; and this is done in the presence of the females. The courtship is sometimes a prolonged affair, and many males and females congregate at an appointed place. To suppose that the females do not appreciate the beauty of the males, is to admit that their splendid decorations, all their pomp and display, are useless; and this is incredible. Birds have fine powers of discrimination, and in some few instances it can be shewn that they have a taste for the beautiful. The females, moreover, are known occasionally to exhibit a marked preference or antipathy for certain individual males.

If it be admitted that the females prefer, or are unconsciously excited by the more beautiful males, then the males would slowly but surely be rendered more and more attractive through sexual selection. That it is this sex which has been chiefly modified, we may infer from the fact that, in almost every genus where the sexes differ, the males differ much more from one another than do the females; this is well shewn in certain closely-allied representative species, in which the females can hardly be distinguished, whilst the males are quite distinct. Birds in a state of nature offer individual differences which would amply suffice for the work of sexual selection; but we have seen that they occasionally present more strongly marked variations which recur so frequently that they would immediately be fixed, if they served to allure the female. The laws of variation must determine the nature of the initial changes, and will have largely influenced the final result. The gradations, which may be observed between the males of allied species, indicate the nature of the steps through which they have passed. They explain also in the most interesting manner how certain characters have originated, such as the indented ocelli on the tail-feathers of the peacock, and the ball-and-socket ocelli on the wing-feathers of the Argus pheasant. It is evident that the brilliant colours, top-knots, fine plumes, etc., of many male birds cannot have been acquired as a protection; indeed, they sometimes lead to danger. That they are not due to the direct and definite action of the conditions of life, we may feel assured, because the females have been exposed to the same conditions, and yet often differ from the males to an extreme degree. Although it is probable that changed conditions acting during a lengthened period have in some cases produced a definite effect on both sexes, or sometimes on one sex alone, the more important result will have been an increased tendency to vary or to present more strongly-marked individual differences; and such differences will have afforded an excellent ground-work for the action of sexual selection.

The laws of inheritance, irrespectively of selection, appear to have determined whether the characters acquired by the males for the sake of ornament, for producing various sounds, and for fighting together, have been transmitted to the males alone or to both sexes, either permanently, or periodically during certain seasons of the year. Why various characters should have been transmitted sometimes in one way and sometimes in another, is not in most cases known; but the period of variability seems often to have been the determining cause. When the two sexes have inherited all characters in common they necessarily resemble each other; but as the successive variations may be differently transmitted, every possible gradation may be found, even within the same genus, from the closest similarity to the widest dissimilarity between the sexes. With many closely-allied species, following nearly the same habits of life, the males have come to differ from each other chiefly through the action of sexual selection; whilst the females have come to differ chiefly from partaking more or less of the characters thus acquired by the males. The effects, moreover, of the definite action of the conditions of life, will not have been masked in the females, as in the males, by the accumulation through sexual selection of strongly-pronounced colours and other ornaments. The individuals of both sexes, however affected, will have been kept at each successive period nearly uniform by the free intercrossing of many individuals.

With species, in which the sexes differ in colour, it is possible or probable that some of the successive variations often tended to be transmitted equally to both sexes; but that when this occurred the females were prevented from acquiring the bright colours of the males, by the destruction which they suffered during incubation. There is no evidence that it is possible by natural selection to convert one form of transmission into another. But there would not be the least difficulty in rendering a female dull-coloured, the male being still kept bright-coloured, by the selection of successive variations, which were from the first limited in their transmission to the same sex. Whether the females of many species have actually been thus modified, must at present remain doubtful. When, through the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes, the females were rendered as conspicuously coloured as the males, their instincts appear often to have been modified so that they were led to build domed or concealed nests.

In one small and curious class of cases the characters and habits of the two sexes have been completely transposed, for the females are larger, stronger, more vociferous and brighter coloured than the males. They have, also, become so quarrelsome that they often fight together for the possession of the males, like the males of other pugnacious species for the possession of the females. If, as seems probable, such females habitually drive away their rivals, and by the display of their bright colours or other charms endeavour to attract the males, we can understand how it is that they have gradually been rendered, by sexual selection and sexually-limited transmission, more beautiful than the males–the latter being left unmodified or only slightly modified.

Whenever the law of inheritance at corresponding ages prevails but not that of sexually-limited transmission, then if the parents vary late in life– and we know that this constantly occurs with our poultry, and occasionally with other birds–the young will be left unaffected, whilst the adults of both sexes will be modified. If both these laws of inheritance prevail and either sex varies late in life, that sex alone will be modified, the other sex and the young being unaffected. When variations in brightness or in other conspicuous characters occur early in life, as no doubt often happens, they will not be acted on through sexual selection until the period of reproduction arrives; consequently if dangerous to the young, they will be eliminated through natural selection. Thus we can understand how it is that variations arising late in life have so often been preserved for the ornamentation of the males; the females and the young being left almost unaffected, and therefore like each other. With species having a distinct summer and winter plumage, the males of which either resemble or differ from the females during both seasons or during the summer alone, the degrees and kinds of resemblance between the young and the old are exceedingly complex; and this complexity apparently depends on characters, first acquired by the males, being transmitted in various ways and degrees, as limited by age, sex, and season.

As the young of so many species have been but little modified in colour and in other ornaments, we are enabled to form some judgment with respect to the plumage of their early progenitors; and we may infer that the beauty of our existing species, if we look to the whole class, has been largely increased since that period, of which the immature plumage gives us an indirect record. Many birds, especially those which live much on the ground, have undoubtedly been obscurely coloured for the sake of protection. In some instances the upper exposed surface of the plumage has been thus coloured in both sexes, whilst the lower surface in the males alone has been variously ornamented through sexual selection. Finally, from the facts given in these four chapters, we may conclude that weapons for battle, organs for producing sound, ornaments of many kinds, bright and conspicuous colours, have generally been acquired by the males through variation and sexual selection, and have been transmitted in various ways according to the several laws of inheritance–the females and the young being left comparatively but little modified. (57. I am greatly indebted to the kindness of Mr. Sclater for having looked over these four chapters on birds, and the two following ones on mammals. In this way I have been saved from making mistakes about the names of the species, and from stating anything as a fact which is known to this distinguished naturalist to be erroneous. But, of course, he is not at all answerable for the accuracy of the statements quoted by me from various authorities.)

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