Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 17.djvu/681

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ÆSTHETIC FEELING IN BIRDS.

663

capable of distinguishing between comparatively minute shades and degrees of beauty, just as we can distinguish between such minute points in human faces as would doubtless absolutely escape the notice of any other animal, it is yet improbable that they would be equally discriminative outside the limits of their own species. Again the principle of "gradation of characters" necessitates certain artistic effects in their plumage which they themselves may be only half able to admire. So, too, the necessarily symmetrical arrangement of the two sides of the body and the mode of growth of feathers may often have helped, unintentionally, as it were, in producing the total effect. In other words, it may well be that the birds, while selecting their partners on the ground of bright color, exceptionally long plumes, and other ornamental characters which they could understand and admire, may have succeeded in producing harmonies of tone, delicate gradations of tint, and other similar effects which they could not understand or admire, or at least could only admire very partially.

Yet, after making all allowances for possible reading in of human feelings, it may probably be asserted with safety that the actual appearance of birds entitles them to rank, on the whole, higher in the aesthetic scale than any other animals except man. Whether we look at their graceful shapes, in the swan and the heron; their beautiful plumes, in the ostrich and the bird-of-paradise; their exquisite color, in the sunbird and the lory; their ornamental crests and lappets, in the humming-birds, the pigeons, and the parrots; or their song in the linnet, the mocking-bird, and the nightingale—we must confess that they give extraordinary evidence of a taste for all that man considers lovely or artistic. And this is just what we might expect from their free mode of life, their rapid motion, their highly developed senses, their comparative freedom from enemies, their long and almost uninterrupted rivalry between themselves for the possession of their mates. Especially should we expect this splendid outburst of aesthetic sensibility exactly where we find it in its greatest glory, among the flower haunting and fruit-eating species of the Brazilian forests, the Indian jungles, and the Malay Archipelago. Surrounded for generations and generations by gorgeous orchids and trumpet-creepers, from which they sucked the stored-up nectar, by gleaming purple or golden fruits, by burnished beetles, metallic butterflies, bronze-scaled lizards, and coral snakes, their prey or their enemies, exercising their eyes perpetually in the search for food among the exquisite objects of their environment, and safe from almost all foes except those of their own class, tropical birds have naturally developed the most gorgeous and the most perfect forms and colors in the whole animal creation. And, above all, they have stamped the mark of their peculiarly high aesthetic feelings upon their own shapes by the wonderful definiteness of their patterns and their ornamental adjuncts, nowhere equaled, save in the most perfect decorative handicraft of man himself.