The Descent of Man – Day 94 of 151

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.)

The males of almost all gallinaceous birds, even those which are not furnished with spurs, engage during the breeding-season in fierce conflicts. The Capercailzie and Black-cock (Tetrao urogallus and T. tetrix), which are both polygamists, have regular appointed places, where during many weeks they congregate in numbers to fight together and to display their charms before the females. Dr. W. Kovalevsky informs me that in Russia he has seen the snow all bloody on the arenas where the capercailzie have fought; and the black-cocks “make the feathers fly in every direction,” when several “engage in a battle royal.” The elder Brehm gives a curious account of the Balz, as the love-dances and love-songs of the Black-cock are called in Germany. The bird utters almost continuously the strangest noises: “he holds his tail up and spreads it out like a fan, he lifts up his head and neck with all the feathers erect, and stretches his wings from the body. Then he takes a few jumps in different directions, sometimes in a circle, and presses the under part of his beak so hard against the ground that the chin feathers are rubbed off. During these movements he beats his wings and turns round and round. The more ardent he grows the more lively he becomes, until at last the bird appears like a frantic creature.” At such times the black-cocks are so absorbed that they become almost blind and deaf, but less so than the capercailzie: hence bird after bird may be shot on the same spot, or even caught by the hand. After performing these antics the males begin to fight: and the same black-cock, in order to prove his strength over several antagonists, will visit in the course of one morning several Balz-places, which remain the same during successive years. (14. Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ 1867, B. iv. s. 351. Some of the foregoing statements are taken from L. Lloyd, ‘The Game Birds of Sweden,’ etc., 1867, p. 79.)

The peacock with his long train appears more like a dandy than a warrior, but he sometimes engages in fierce contests: the Rev. W. Darwin Fox informs me that at some little distance from Chester two peacocks became so excited whilst fighting, that they flew over the whole city, still engaged, until they alighted on the top of St. John’s tower.

The spur, in those gallinaceous birds which are thus provided, is generally single; but Polyplectron (Fig. 51) has two or more on each leg; and one of the Blood-pheasants (Ithaginis cruentus) has been seen with five spurs. The spurs are generally confined to the male, being represented by mere knobs or rudiments in the female; but the females of the Java peacock (Pavo muticus) and, as I am informed by Mr. Blyth, of the small fire-backed pheasant (Euplocamus erythrophthalmus) possess spurs. In Galloperdix it is usual for the males to have two spurs, and for the females to have only one on each leg. (15. Jerdon, ‘Birds of India’: on Ithaginis, vol. iii. p. 523; on Galloperdix, p. 541.) Hence spurs may be considered as a masculine structure, which has been occasionally more or less transferred to the females. Like most other secondary sexual characters, the spurs are highly variable, both in number and development, in the same species.

Palamedea cornuta (from Brehm), shewing the double wing-spurs, and the filament on the head.

Figure 38: Palamedea cornuta (from Brehm), shewing the double wing-spurs, and the filament on the head.

Various birds have spurs on their wings. But the Egyptian goose (Chenalopex aegyptiacus) has only “bare obtuse knobs,” and these probably shew us the first steps by which true spurs have been developed in other species. In the spur-winged goose, Plectropterus gambensis, the males have much larger spurs than the females; and they use them, as I am informed by Mr. Bartlett, in fighting together, so that, in this case, the wing-spurs serve as sexual weapons; but according to Livingstone, they are chiefly used in the defence of the young. The Palamedea (Fig. 38) is armed with a pair of spurs on each wing; and these are such formidable weapons that a single blow has been known to drive a dog howling away. But it does not appear that the spurs in this case, or in that of some of the spur-winged rails, are larger in the male than in the female. (16. For the Egyptian goose, see Macgillivray, ‘British Birds,’ vol. iv. p. 639. For Plectropterus, Livingstone’s ‘Travels,’ p. 254. For Palamedea, Brehm’s ‘Thierleben,’ B. iv. s. 740. See also on this bird Azara, ‘Voyages dans l’Amerique merid.’ tom. iv. 1809, pp. 179, 253.) In certain plovers, however, the wing-spurs must be considered as a sexual character. Thus in the male of our common peewit (Vanellus cristatus) the tubercle on the shoulder of the wing becomes more prominent during the breeding-season, and the males fight together. In some species of Lobivanellus a similar tubercle becomes developed during the breeding-season “into a short horny spur.” In the Australian L. lobatus both sexes have spurs, but these are much larger in the males than in the females. In an allied bird, the Hoplopterus armatus, the spurs do not increase in size during the breeding-season; but these birds have been seen in Egypt to fight together, in the same manner as our peewits, by turning suddenly in the air and striking sideways at each other, sometimes with fatal results. Thus also they drive away other enemies. (17. See, on our peewit, Mr. R. Carr in ‘Land and Water,’ Aug. 8th, 1868, p. 46. In regard to Lobivanellus, see Jerdon’s ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. p. 647, and Gould’s ‘Handbook of Birds of Australia,’ vol. ii. p. 220. For the Hoplopterus, see Mr. Allen in the ‘Ibis,’ vol. v. 1863, p. 156.)

The season of love is that of battle; but the males of some birds, as of the game-fowl and ruff, and even the young males of the wild turkey and grouse (18. Audubon, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. ii. p. 492; vol. i. pp. 4-13.), are ready to fight whenever they meet. The presence of the female is the teterrima belli causa. The Bengali baboos make the pretty little males of the amadavat (Estrelda amandava) fight together by placing three small cages in a row, with a female in the middle; after a little time the two males are turned loose, and immediately a desperate battle ensues. (19. Mr. Blyth, ‘Land and Water,’ 1867, p. 212.) When many males congregate at the same appointed spot and fight together, as in the case of grouse and various other birds, they are generally attended by the females (20. Richardson on Tetrao umbellus, ‘Fauna Bor. Amer.: Birds,’ 1831, p. 343. L. Lloyd, ‘Game Birds of Sweden,’ 1867, pp. 22, 79, on the capercailzie and black-cock. Brehm, however, asserts (‘Thierleben,’ B. iv. s. 352) that in Germany the grey-hens do not generally attend the Balzen of the black-cocks, but this is an exception to the common rule; possibly the hens may lie hidden in the surrounding bushes, as is known to be the case with the gray-hens in Scandinavia, and with other species in N. America.), which afterwards pair with the victorious combatants. But in some cases the pairing precedes instead of succeeding the combat: thus according to Audubon (21. ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. ii. p. 275.), several males of the Virginian goat-sucker (Caprimulgus virgianus) “court, in a highly entertaining manner the female, and no sooner has she made her choice, than her approved gives chase to all intruders, and drives them beyond his dominions.” Generally the males try to drive away or kill their rivals before they pair. It does not, however, appear that the females invariably prefer the victorious males. I have indeed been assured by Dr. W. Kovalevsky that the female capercailzie sometimes steals away with a young male who has not dared to enter the arena with the older cocks, in the same manner as occasionally happens with the does of the red-deer in Scotland. When two males contend in presence of a single female, the victor, no doubt, commonly gains his desire; but some of these battles are caused by wandering males trying to distract the peace of an already mated pair. (22. Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ etc., B. iv. 1867, p. 990. Audubon, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. ii. p. 492.)

Even with the most pugnacious species it is probable that the pairing does not depend exclusively on the mere strength and courage of the male; for such males are generally decorated with various ornaments, which often become more brilliant during the breeding-season, and which are sedulously displayed before the females. The males also endeavour to charm or excite their mates by love-notes, songs, and antics; and the courtship is, in many instances, a prolonged affair. Hence it is not probable that the females are indifferent to the charms of the opposite sex, or that they are invariably compelled to yield to the victorious males. It is more probable that the females are excited, either before or after the conflict, by certain males, and thus unconsciously prefer them. In the case of Tetrao umbellus, a good observer (23. ‘Land and Water,’ July 25, 1868, p. 14.) goes so far as to believe that the battles of the male “are all a sham, performed to show themselves to the greatest advantage before the admiring females who assemble around; for I have never been able to find a maimed hero, and seldom more than a broken feather.” I shall have to recur to this subject, but I may here add that with the Tetrao cupido of the United States, about a score of males assemble at a particular spot, and, strutting about, make the whole air resound with their extraordinary noises. At the first answer from a female the males begin to fight furiously, and the weaker give way; but then, according to Audubon, both the victors and vanquished search for the female, so that the females must either then exert a choice, or the battle must be renewed. So, again, with one of the field-starlings of the United States (Sturnella ludoviciana) the males engage in fierce conflicts, “but at the sight of a female they all fly after her as if mad.” (24. Audubon’s ‘Ornithological Biography;’ on Tetrao cupido, vol. ii. p. 492; on the Sturnus, vol. ii. p. 219.)

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