The Descent of Man – Day 93 of 151

Chapter XIII: Secondary Sexual Characters of Birds

  • Sexual differences
  • Law of battle
  • Special weapons
  • Vocal organs
  • Instrumental music
  • Love-antics and dances
  • Decorations, permanent and seasonal
  • Double and single annual moults
  • Display of ornaments by the males.

Secondary sexual characters are more diversified and conspicuous in birds, though not perhaps entailing more important changes of structure, than in any other class of animals. I shall, therefore, treat the subject at considerable length. Male birds sometimes, though rarely, possess special weapons for fighting with each other. They charm the female by vocal or instrumental music of the most varied kinds. They are ornamented by all sorts of combs, wattles, protuberances, horns, air-distended sacks, top-knots, naked shafts, plumes and lengthened feathers gracefully springing from all parts of the body. The beak and naked skin about the head, and the feathers, are often gorgeously coloured. The males sometimes pay their court by dancing, or by fantastic antics performed either on the ground or in the air. In one instance, at least, the male emits a musky odour, which we may suppose serves to charm or excite the female; for that excellent observer, Mr. Ramsay (1. ‘Ibis,’ vol. iii. (new series), 1867, p. 414.), says of the Australian musk-duck (Biziura lobata) that “the smell which the male emits during the summer months is confined to that sex, and in some individuals is retained throughout the year; I have never, even in the breeding-season, shot a female which had any smell of musk.” So powerful is this odour during the pairing-season, that it can be detected long before the bird can be seen. (2. Gould, ‘Handbook of the Birds of Australia,’ 1865, vol. ii. p. 383.) On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have. This is shewn by our enjoyment of the singing of birds, and by our women, both civilised and savage, decking their heads with borrowed plumes, and using gems which are hardly more brilliantly coloured than the naked skin and wattles of certain birds. In man, however, when cultivated, the sense of beauty is manifestly a far more complex feeling, and is associated with various intellectual ideas.

Before treating of the sexual characters with which we are here more particularly concerned, I may just allude to certain differences between the sexes which apparently depend on differences in their habits of life; for such cases, though common in the lower, are rare in the higher classes. Two humming-birds belonging to the genus Eustephanus, which inhabit the island of Juan Fernandez, were long thought to be specifically distinct, but are now known, as Mr. Gould informs me, to be the male and female of the same species, and they differ slightly in the form of the beak. In another genus of humming-birds (Grypus), the beak of the male is serrated along the margin and hooked at the extremity, thus differing much from that of the female. In the Neomorpha of New Zealand, there is, as we have seen, a still wider difference in the form of the beak in relation to the manner of feeding of the two sexes. Something of the same kind has been observed with the goldfinch (Carduelis elegans), for I am assured by Mr. J. Jenner Weir that the bird-catchers can distinguish the males by their slightly longer beaks. The flocks of males are often found feeding on the seeds of the teazle (Dipsacus), which they can reach with their elongated beaks, whilst the females more commonly feed on the seeds of the betony or Scrophularia. With a slight difference of this kind as a foundation, we can see how the beaks of the two sexes might be made to differ greatly through natural selection. In some of the above cases, however, it is possible that the beaks of the males may have been first modified in relation to their contests with other males; and that this afterwards led to slightly changed habits of life.

Law of Battle

Almost all male birds are extremely pugnacious, using their beaks, wings, and legs for fighting together. We see this every spring with our robins and sparrows. The smallest of all birds, namely the humming-bird, is one of the most quarrelsome. Mr. Gosse (3. Quoted by Mr. Gould, ‘Introduction to the Trochilidae,’ 1861, page 29.) describes a battle in which a pair seized hold of each other’s beaks, and whirled round and round, till they almost fell to the ground; and M. Montes de Oca, in speaking or another genus of humming-bird, says that two males rarely meet without a fierce aerial encounter: when kept in cages “their fighting has mostly ended in the splitting of the tongue of one of the two, which then surely dies from being unable to feed.” (4. Gould, ibid. p. 52.) With waders, the males of the common water-hen (Gallinula chloropus) “when pairing, fight violently for the females: they stand nearly upright in the water and strike with their feet.” Two were seen to be thus engaged for half an hour, until one got hold of the head of the other, which would have been killed had not the observer interfered; the female all the time looking on as a quiet spectator. (5. W. Thompson, ‘Natural History of Ireland: Birds,’ vol. ii. 1850, p. 327.) Mr. Blyth informs me that the males of an allied bird (Gallicrex cristatus) are a third larger than the females, and are so pugnacious during the breeding-season that they are kept by the natives of Eastern Bengal for the sake of fighting. Various other birds are kept in India for the same purpose, for instance, the bulbuls (Pycnonotus hoemorrhous) which “fight with great spirit.” (6. Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ 1863, vol. ii. p. 96.)

The Ruff or Machetes pugnax (from Brehm's 'Thierleben').

Figure 37: The Ruff or Machetes pugnax (from Brehm’s ‘Thierleben’).

The polygamous ruff (Machetes pugnax, Fig. 37) is notorious for his extreme pugnacity; and in the spring, the males, which are considerably larger than the females, congregate day after day at a particular spot, where the females propose to lay their eggs. The fowlers discover these spots by the turf being trampled somewhat bare. Here they fight very much like game-cocks, seizing each other with their beaks and striking with their wings. The great ruff of feathers round the neck is then erected, and according to Col. Montagu “sweeps the ground as a shield to defend the more tender parts”; and this is the only instance known to me in the case of birds of any structure serving as a shield. The ruff of feathers, however, from its varied and rich colours probably serves in chief part as an ornament. Like most pugnacious birds, they seem always ready to fight, and when closely confined, often kill each other; but Montagu observed that their pugnacity becomes greater during the spring, when the long feathers on their necks are fully developed; and at this period the least movement by any one bird provokes a general battle. (7. Macgillivray, ‘History of British Birds,’ vol. iv. 1852, pp. 177-181.) Of the pugnacity of web-footed birds, two instances will suffice: in Guiana “bloody fights occur during the breeding-season between the males of the wild musk-duck (Cairina moschata); and where these fights have occurred the river is covered for some distance with feathers.” (8. Sir R. Schomburgk, in ‘Journal of Royal Geographic Society,’ vol. xiii. 1843, p. 31.) Birds which seem ill-adapted for fighting engage in fierce conflicts; thus the stronger males of the pelican drive away the weaker ones, snapping with their huge beaks and giving heavy blows with their wings. Male snipe fight together, “tugging and pushing each other with their bills in the most curious manner imaginable.” Some few birds are believed never to fight; this is the case, according to Audubon, with one of the woodpeckers of the United States (Picu sauratus), although “the hens are followed by even half a dozen of their gay suitors.” (9. ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. i. p. 191. For pelicans and snipes, see vol. iii. pp. 138, 477.)

The males of many birds are larger than the females, and this no doubt is the result of the advantage gained by the larger and stronger males over their rivals during many generations. The difference in size between the two sexes is carried to an extreme point in several Australian species; thus the male musk-duck (Biziura), and the male Cincloramphus cruralis (allied to our pipits) are by measurement actually twice as large as their respective females. (10. Gould, ‘Handbook of Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. p. 395; vol. ii. p. 383.) With many other birds the females are larger than the males; and, as formerly remarked, the explanation often given, namely, that the females have most of the work in feeding their young, will not suffice. In some few cases, as we shall hereafter see, the females apparently have acquired their greater size and strength for the sake of conquering other females and obtaining possession of the males.

The males of many gallinaceous birds, especially of the polygamous kinds, are furnished with special weapons for fighting with their rivals, namely spurs, which can be used with fearful effect. It has been recorded by a trustworthy writer (11. Mr. Hewitt, in the ‘Poultry Book’ by Tegetmeier, 1866, p. 137.) that in Derbyshire a kite struck at a game-hen accompanied by her chickens, when the cock rushed to the rescue, and drove his spur right through the eye and skull of the aggressor. The spur was with difficulty drawn from the skull, and as the kite, though dead, retained his grasp, the two birds were firmly locked together; but the cock when disentangled was very little injured. The invincible courage of the game-cock is notorious: a gentleman who long ago witnessed the brutal scene, told me that a bird had both its legs broken by some accident in the cockpit, and the owner laid a wager that if the legs could be spliced so that the bird could stand upright, he would continue fighting. This was effected on the spot, and the bird fought with undaunted courage until he received his death-stroke. In Ceylon a closely allied, wild species, the Gallus Stanleyi, is known to fight desperately “in defence of his seraglio,” so that one of the combatants is frequently found dead. (12. Layard, ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History,’ vol. xiv. 1854, p. 63.) An Indian partridge (Ortygornis gularis), the male of which is furnished with strong and sharp spurs, is so quarrelsome “that the scars of former fights disfigure the breast of almost every bird you kill.” (13. Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. p. 574.)

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