The Descent of Man – Day 97 of 151

Love Antics and Dances

The curious love gestures of some birds have already been incidentally noticed; so that little need here be added. In Northern America large numbers of a grouse, the Tetrao phasianellus, meet every morning during the breeding-season on a selected level spot, and here they run round and round in a circle of about fifteen or twenty feet in diameter, so that the ground is worn quite bare, like a fairy-ring. In these Partridge-dances, as they are called by the hunters, the birds assume the strangest attitudes, and run round, some to the left and some to the right. Audubon describes the males of a heron (Ardea herodias) as walking about on their long legs with great dignity before the females, bidding defiance to their rivals. With one of the disgusting carrion-vultures (Cathartes jota) the same naturalist states that “the gesticulations and parade of the males at the beginning of the love-season are extremely ludicrous.” Certain birds perform their love-antics on the wing, as we have seen with the black African weaver, instead of on the ground. During the spring our little white-throat (Sylvia cinerea) often rises a few feet or yards in the air above some bush, and “flutters with a fitful and fantastic motion, singing all the while, and then drops to its perch.” The great English bustard throws himself into indescribably odd attitudes whilst courting the female, as has been figured by Wolf. An allied Indian bustard (Otis bengalensis) at such times “rises perpendicularly into the air with a hurried flapping of his wings, raising his crest and puffing out the feathers of his neck and breast, and then drops to the ground;” he repeats this manoeuvre several times, at the same time humming in a peculiar tone. Such females as happen to be near “obey this saltatory summons,” and when they approach he trails his wings and spreads his tail like a turkey-cock. (59. For Tetrao phasianellus, see Richardson, ‘Fauna, Bor. America,’ p. 361, and for further particulars Capt. Blakiston, ‘Ibis,’ 1863, p. 125. For the Cathartes and Ardea, Audubon, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. ii. p. 51, and vol. iii. p. 89. On the White-throat, Macgillivray, ‘History of British Birds,’ vol. ii. p. 354. On the Indian Bustard, Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. p. 618.)

Bower-bird, Chlamydera maculata, with bower (from Brehm).

Figure 46: Bower-bird, Chlamydera maculata, with bower (from Brehm).

But the most curious case is afforded by three allied genera of Australian birds, the famous Bower-birds,–no doubt the co-descendants of some ancient species which first acquired the strange instinct of constructing bowers for performing their love-antics. The bowers (Fig. 46), which, as we shall hereafter see, are decorated with feathers, shells, bones, and leaves, are built on the ground for the sole purpose of courtship, for their nests are formed in trees. Both sexes assist in the erection of the bowers, but the male is the principal workman. So strong is this instinct that it is practised under confinement, and Mr. Strange has described (60. Gould, ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia,’ vol. i. pp. 444, 449, 455. The bower of the Satin Bower-bird may be seen in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, Regent’s Park.) the habits of some Satin Bower-birds which he kept in an aviary in New South Wales. “At times the male will chase the female all over the aviary, then go to the bower, pick up a gay feather or a large leaf, utter a curious kind of note, set all his feathers erect, run round the bower and become so excited that his eyes appear ready to start from his bead; he continues opening first one wing then the other, uttering a low, whistling note, and, like the domestic cock, seems to be picking up something from the ground, until at last the female goes gently towards him.” Captain Stokes has described the habits and “play-houses” of another species, the Great Bower-bird, which was seen “amusing itself by flying backwards and forwards, taking a shell alternately from each side, and carrying it through the archway in its mouth.” These curious structures, formed solely as halls of assemblage, where both sexes amuse themselves and pay their court, must cost the birds much labour. The bower, for instance, of the Fawn-breasted species, is nearly four feet in length, eighteen inches in height, and is raised on a thick platform of sticks.


I will first discuss the cases in which the males are ornamented either exclusively or in a much higher degree than the females, and in a succeeding chapter those in which both sexes are equally ornamented, and finally the rare cases in which the female is somewhat more brightly-coloured than the male. As with the artificial ornaments used by savage and civilised men, so with the natural ornaments of birds, the head is the chief seat of decoration. (61. See remarks to this effect, on the ‘Feeling of Beauty among Animals,’ by Mr. J. Shaw, in the ‘Athenaeum,’ Nov. 24th, 1866, p. 681.) The ornaments, as mentioned at the commencement of this chapter, are wonderfully diversified. The plumes on the front or back of the head consist of variously-shaped feathers, sometimes capable of erection or expansion, by which their beautiful colours are fully displayed. Elegant ear-tufts (Fig. 39) are occasionally present. The head is sometimes covered with velvety down, as with the pheasant; or is naked and vividly coloured. The throat, also, is sometimes ornamented with a beard, wattles, or caruncles. Such appendages are generally brightly-coloured, and no doubt serve as ornaments, though not always ornamental in our eyes; for whilst the male is in the act of courting the female, they often swell and assume vivid tints, as in the male turkey. At such times the fleshy appendages about the head of the male Tragopan pheasant (Ceriornis Temminckii) swell into a large lappet on the throat and into two horns, one on each side of the splendid top-knot; and these are then coloured of the most intense blue which I have ever beheld. (62. See Dr. Murie’s account with coloured figures in ‘Proceedings, Zoological Society,’ 1872, p. 730.) The African hornbill (Bucorax abyssinicus) inflates the scarlet bladder-like wattle on its neck, and with its wings drooping and tail expanded “makes quite a grand appearance.” (63. Mr. Monteiro, ‘Ibis,’ vol. iv. 1862, p. 339.) Even the iris of the eye is sometimes more brightly-coloured in the male than in the female; and this is frequently the case with the beak, for instance, in our common blackbird. In Buceros corrugatus, the whole beak and immense casque are coloured more conspicuously in the male than in the female; and “the oblique grooves upon the sides of the lower mandible are peculiar to the male sex.” (64. ‘Land and Water,’ 1868, p. 217.)

The head, again, often supports fleshy appendages, filaments, and solid protuberances. These, if not common to both sexes, are always confined to the males. The solid protuberances have been described in detail by Dr. W. Marshall (65. ‘Ueber die Schadelhocker,’ etc., ‘Niederland. Archiv. fur Zoologie,’ B. I. Heft 2, 1872.), who shews that they are formed either of cancellated bone coated with skin, or of dermal and other tissues. With mammals true horns are always supported on the frontal bones, but with birds various bones have been modified for this purpose; and in species of the same group the protuberances may have cores of bone, or be quite destitute of them, with intermediate gradations connecting these two extremes. Hence, as Dr. Marshall justly remarks, variations of the most different kinds have served for the development through sexual selection of these ornamental appendages. Elongated feathers or plumes spring from almost every part of the body. The feathers on the throat and breast are sometimes developed into beautiful ruffs and collars. The tail-feathers are frequently increased in length; as we see in the tail-coverts of the peacock, and in the tail itself of the Argus pheasant. With the peacock even the bones of the tail have been modified to support the heavy tail-coverts. (66. Dr. W. Marshall, ‘Uber den Vogelschwanz,’ ibid. B. I. Heft 2, 1872.) The body of the Argus is not larger than that of a fowl; yet the length from the end of the beak to the extremity of the tail is no less than five feet three inches (67. Jardine’s ‘Naturalist Library: Birds,’ vol. xiv. p. 166.), and that of the beautifully ocellated secondary wing-feathers nearly three feet. In a small African night-jar (Cosmetornis vexillarius) one of the primary wing-feathers, during the breeding-season, attains a length of twenty-six inches, whilst the bird itself is only ten inches in length. In another closely-allied genus of night-jars, the shafts of the elongated wing-feathers are naked, except at the extremity, where there is a disc. (68. Sclater, in the ‘Ibis,’ vol. vi. 1864, p. 114; Livingstone, ‘Expedition to the Zambesi,’ 1865, p. 66.) Again, in another genus of night-jars, the tail-feathers are even still more prodigiously developed. In general the feathers of the tail are more often elongated than those of the wings, as any great elongation of the latter impedes flight. We thus see that in closely-allied birds ornaments of the same kind have been gained by the males through the development of widely different feathers.

It is a curious fact that the feathers of species belonging to very distinct groups have been modified in almost exactly the same peculiar manner. Thus the wing-feathers in one of the above-mentioned night-jars are bare along the shaft, and terminate in a disc; or are, as they are sometimes called, spoon or racket-shaped. Feathers of this kind occur in the tail of a motmot (Eumomota superciliaris), of a king-fisher, finch, humming-bird, parrot, several Indian drongos (Dicrurus and Edolius, in one of which the disc stands vertically), and in the tail of certain birds of paradise. In these latter birds, similar feathers, beautifully ocellated, ornament the head, as is likewise the case with some gallinaceous birds. In an Indian bustard (Sypheotides auritus) the feathers forming the ear-tufts, which are about four inches in length, also terminate in discs. (69. Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. p. 620.) It is a most singular fact that the motmots, as Mr. Salvin has clearly shewn (70. ‘Proceedings, Zoological Society,’ 1873, p. 429.), give to their tail feathers the racket-shape by biting off the barbs, and, further, that this continued mutilation has produced a certain amount of inherited effect.

Paradisea Papuana (T.W. Wood).

Figure 47: Paradisea Papuana (T.W. Wood).

Again, the barbs of the feathers in various widely-distinct birds are filamentous or plumose, as with some herons, ibises, birds of paradise, and Gallinaceae. In other cases the barbs disappear, leaving the shafts bare from end to end; and these in the tail of the Paradisea apoda attain a length of thirty-four inches (71. Wallace, in ‘Annals and Magazine of Natural History,’ vol. xx. 1857, p. 416, and in his ‘Malay Archipelago,’ vol. ii. 1869, p. 390.): in P. Papuana (Fig. 47) they are much shorter and thin. Smaller feathers when thus denuded appear like bristles, as on the breast of the turkey-cock. As any fleeting fashion in dress comes to be admired by man, so with birds a change of almost any kind in the structure or colouring of the feathers in the male appears to have been admired by the female. The fact of the feathers in widely distinct groups having been modified in an analogous manner no doubt depends primarily on all the feathers having nearly the same structure and manner of development, and consequently tending to vary in the same manner. We often see a tendency to analogous variability in the plumage of our domestic breeds belonging to distinct species. Thus top-knots have appeared in several species. In an extinct variety of the turkey, the top-knot consisted of bare quills surmounted with plumes of down, so that they somewhat resembled the racket-shaped feathers above described. In certain breeds of the pigeon and fowl the feathers are plumose, with some tendency in the shafts to be naked. In the Sebastopol goose the scapular feathers are greatly elongated, curled, or even spirally twisted, with the margins plumose. (72. See my work on ‘The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ vol. i. pp. 289, 293.)

In regard to colour, hardly anything need here be said, for every one knows how splendid are the tints of many birds, and how harmoniously they are combined. The colours are often metallic and iridescent. Circular spots are sometimes surrounded by one or more differently shaded zones, and are thus converted into ocelli. Nor need much be said on the wonderful difference between the sexes of many birds. The common peacock offers a striking instance. Female birds of paradise are obscurely coloured and destitute of all ornaments, whilst the males are probably the most highly decorated of all birds, and in so many different ways that they must be seen to be appreciated. The elongated and golden-orange plumes which spring from beneath the wings of the Paradisea apoda, when vertically erected and made to vibrate, are described as forming a sort of halo, in the centre of which the head “looks like a little emerald sun with its rays formed by the two plumes.” (73. Quoted from M. de Lafresnaye in ‘Annals and Mag. of Natural History,’ vol. xiii. 1854, p. 157: see also Mr. Wallace’s much fuller account in vol. xx. 1857, p. 412, and in his ‘Malay Archipelago.’S) In another most beautiful species the head is bald, “and of a rich cobalt blue, crossed by several lines of black velvety feathers.” (74. Wallace, ‘The Malay Archipelago,’ vol. ii. 1869, p. 405.)

Lophornis ornatus, male and female (from Brehm).

Figure 48: Lophornis ornatus, male and female (from Brehm).

Spathura underwoodi, male and female (from Brehm).

Figure 49: Spathura underwoodi, male and female (from Brehm).

Male humming-birds (Figs. 48 and 49) almost vie with birds of paradise in their beauty, as every one will admit who has seen Mr. Gould’s splendid volumes, or his rich collection. It is very remarkable in how many different ways these birds are ornamented. Almost every part of their plumage has been taken advantage of, and modified; and the modifications have been carried, as Mr. Gould shewed me, to a wonderful extreme in some species belonging to nearly every sub-group. Such cases are curiously like those which we see in our fancy breeds, reared by man for the sake of ornament; certain individuals originally varied in one character, and other individuals of the same species in other characters; and these have been seized on by man and much augmented–as shewn by the tail of the fantail-pigeon, the hood of the jacobin, the beak and wattle of the carrier, and so forth. The sole difference between these cases is that in the one, the result is due to man’s selection, whilst in the other, as with humming-birds, birds of paradise, etc., it is due to the selection by the females of the more beautiful males.

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