The Descent of Man – Day 99 of 151

Display by Male Birds of Their Plumage

Ornaments of all kinds, whether permanently or temporarily gained, are sedulously displayed by the males, and apparently serve to excite, attract, or fascinate the females. But the males will sometimes display their ornaments, when not in the presence of the females, as occasionally occurs with grouse at their balz-places, and as may be noticed with the peacock; this latter bird, however, evidently wishes for a spectator of some kind, and, as I have often seen, will shew off his finery before poultry, or even pigs. (85. See also ‘Ornamental Poultry,’ by Rev. E.S. Dixon, 1848, p. 8.) All naturalists who have closely attended to the habits of birds, whether in a state of nature or under confinement, are unanimously of opinion that the males take delight in displaying their beauty. Audubon frequently speaks of the male as endeavouring in various ways to charm the female. Mr. Gould, after describing some peculiarities in a male humming-bird, says he has no doubt that it has the power of displaying them to the greatest advantage before the female. Dr. Jerdon (86. ‘Birds of India,’ introduct., vol. i. p. xxiv.; on the peacock, vol. iii. p. 507. See Gould’s ‘Introduction to Trochilidae,’ 1861, pp. 15 and 111.) insists that the beautiful plumage of the male serves “to fascinate and attract the female.” Mr. Bartlett, at the Zoological Gardens, expressed himself to me in the strongest terms to the same effect.

Rupicola crocea, male (T.W. Wood).

Figure 50: Rupicola crocea, male (T.W. Wood).

It must be a grand sight in the forests of India “to come suddenly on twenty or thirty pea-fowl, the males displaying their gorgeous trains, and strutting about in all the pomp of pride before the gratified females.” The wild turkey-cock erects his glittering plumage, expands his finely-zoned tail and barred wing-feathers, and altogether, with his crimson and blue wattles, makes a superb, though, to our eyes, grotesque appearance. Similar facts have already been given with respect to grouse of various kinds. Turning to another Order: The male Rupicola crocea (Fig. 50) is one of the most beautiful birds in the world, being of a splendid orange, with some of the feathers curiously truncated and plumose. The female is brownish-green, shaded with red, and has a much smaller crest. Sir R. Schomburgk has described their courtship; he found one of their meeting-places where ten males and two females were present. The space was from four to five feet in diameter, and appeared to have been cleared of every blade of grass and smoothed as if by human hands. A male “was capering, to the apparent delight of several others. Now spreading its wings, throwing up its head, or opening its tail like a fan; now strutting about with a hopping gait until tired, when it gabbled some kind of note, and was relieved by another. Thus three of them successively took the field, and then, with self-approbation, withdrew to rest.” The Indians, in order to obtain their skins, wait at one of the meeting-places till the birds are eagerly engaged in dancing, and then are able to kill with their poisoned arrows four or five males, one after the other. (87. ‘Journal of R. Geograph. Soc.’ vol. x. 1840, p. 236.) With birds of paradise a dozen or more full-plumaged males congregate in a tree to hold a dancing-party, as it is called by the natives: and here they fly about, raise their wings, elevate their exquisite plumes, and make them vibrate, and the whole tree seems, as Mr. Wallace remarks, to be filled with waving plumes. When thus engaged, they become so absorbed that a skilful archer may shoot nearly the whole party. These birds, when kept in confinement in the Malay Archipelago, are said to take much care in keeping their feathers clean; often spreading them out, examining them, and removing every speck of dirt. One observer, who kept several pairs alive, did not doubt that the display of the male was intended to please the female. (88. ‘Annals and Mag. of Nat. Hist.’ vol. xiii. 1854, p. 157; also Wallace, ibid. vol. xx. 1857, p. 412, and ‘The Malay Archipelago,’ vol. ii. 1869, p. 252. Also Dr. Bennett, as quoted by Brehm, ‘Thierleben,’ B. iii. s. 326.)

Polyplectron chinquis, male (T.W. Wood).

Figure 51: Polyplectron chinquis, male (T.W. Wood).

The Gold and Amherst pheasants during their courtship not only expand and raise their splendid frills, but twist them, as I have myself seen, obliquely towards the female on whichever side she may be standing, obviously in order that a large surface may be displayed before her. (89. Mr. T.W. Wood has given (‘The Student,’ April 1870, p. 115) a full account of this manner of display, by the Gold pheasant and by the Japanese pheasant, Ph. versicolor; and he calls it the lateral or one-sided display.) They likewise turn their beautiful tails and tail-coverts a little towards the same side. Mr. Bartlett has observed a male Polyplectron (Fig. 51) in the act of courtship, and has shewn me a specimen stuffed in the attitude then assumed. The tail and wing-feathers of this bird are ornamented with beautiful ocelli, like those on the peacock’s train. Now when the peacock displays himself, he expands and erects his tail transversely to his body, for he stands in front of the female, and has to shew off, at the same time, his rich blue throat and breast. But the breast of the Polyplectron is obscurely coloured, and the ocelli are not confined to the tail-feathers. Consequently the Polyplectron does not stand in front of the female; but he erects and expands his tail-feathers a little obliquely, lowering the expanded wing on the same side, and raising that on the opposite side. In this attitude the ocelli over the whole body are exposed at the same time before the eyes of the admiring female in one grand bespangled expanse. To whichever side she may turn, the expanded wings and the obliquely-held tail are turned towards her. The male Tragopan pheasant acts in nearly the same manner, for he raises the feathers of the body, though not the wing itself, on the side which is opposite to the female, and which would otherwise be concealed, so that nearly all the beautifully spotted feathers are exhibited at the same time.

Side view of male Argus pheasant, whilst displaying before the female.  Observed and sketched from nature by T.W. Wood.

Figure 52: Side view of male Argus pheasant, whilst displaying before the female. Observed and sketched from nature by T.W. Wood.

The Argus pheasant affords a much more remarkable case. The immensely developed secondary wing-feathers are confined to the male; and each is ornamented with a row of from twenty to twenty-three ocelli, above an inch in diameter. These feathers are also elegantly marked with oblique stripes and rows of spots of a dark colour, like those on the skin of a tiger and leopard combined. These beautiful ornaments are hidden until the male shows himself off before the female. He then erects his tail, and expands his wing-feathers into a great, almost upright, circular fan or shield, which is carried in front of the body. The neck and head are held on one side, so that they are concealed by the fan; but the bird in order to see the female, before whom he is displaying himself, sometimes pushes his head between two of the long wing-feathers (as Mr. Bartlett has seen), and then presents a grotesque appearance. This must be a frequent habit with the bird in a state of nature, for Mr. Bartlett and his son on examining some perfect skins sent from the East, found a place between two of the feathers which was much frayed, as if the head had here frequently been pushed through. Mr. Wood thinks that the male can also peep at the female on one side, beyond the margin of the fan.

The ocelli on the wing-feathers are wonderful objects; for they are so shaded that, as the Duke of Argyll remarks (90. ‘The Reign of Law,’ 1867, p. 203.), they stand out like balls lying loosely within sockets. When I looked at the specimen in the British Museum, which is mounted with the wings expanded and trailing downwards, I was however greatly disappointed, for the ocelli appeared flat, or even concave. But Mr. Gould soon made the case clear to me, for he held the feathers erect, in the position in which they would naturally be displayed, and now, from the light shining on them from above, each ocellus at once resembled the ornament called a ball and socket. These feathers have been shown to several artists, and all have expressed their admiration at the perfect shading. It may well be asked, could such artistically shaded ornaments have been formed by means of sexual selection? But it will be convenient to defer giving an answer to this question until we treat in the next chapter of the principle of gradation.

The foregoing remarks relate to the secondary wing-feathers, but the primary wing-feathers, which in most gallinaceous birds are uniformly coloured, are in the Argus pheasant equally wonderful. They are of a soft brown tint with numerous dark spots, each of which consists of two or three black dots with a surrounding dark zone. But the chief ornament is a space parallel to the dark-blue shaft, which in outline forms a perfect second feather lying within the true feather. This inner part is coloured of a lighter chestnut, and is thickly dotted with minute white points. I have shewn this feather to several persons, and many have admired it even more than the ball and socket feathers, and have declared that it was more like a work of art than of nature. Now these feathers are quite hidden on all ordinary occasions, but are fully displayed, together with the long secondary feathers, when they are all expanded together so as to form the great fan or shield.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)