The Descent of Man (Darwin)/Chapter XV

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The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin
Chapter XV: Birds (Continued)



Discussion as to why the males alone of some species, and both sexes of others, are brightly coloured—On sexually-limited inheritance, as applied to various structures and to brightly-coloured plumage—Nidification in relation to colour—Loss of nuptial plumage during the winter.

We have in this chapter to consider, why the females of many birds have not acquired the same ornaments as the male; and why, on the other hand, both sexes of many other birds are equally, or almost equally, ornamented? In the following chapter we shall consider the few cases in which the female is more conspicuously coloured than the male.

In my 'Origin of Species'[1] I briefly suggested that the long tail of the peacock would be inconvenient, and the conspicuous black colour of the male capercailzie dangerous, to the female during the period of incubation; and consequently that the transmission of these characters from the male to the female offspring had been checked through natural selection. I still think that this may have occurred in some few instances: but after mature reflection on all the facts which I have been able to collect, I am now inclined to believe that when the sexes differ, the successive variations have generally been from the first limited in their transmission to the same sex in which they first arose. Since my remarks appeared, the subject of sexual coloration has been discussed in some very interesting papers by Mr. Wallace,[2] who believes that in almost all cases the successive variations tended at first to be transmitted equally to both sexes; but that the female was saved, through natural selection, from acquiring the conspicuous colours of the male, owing to the danger which she would thus have incurred during incubation.

This view necessitates a tedious discussion on a difficult point, namely, whether the transmission of a character, which is at first inherited by both sexes, can be subsequently limited in its transmission to one sex alone by means of natural selection. We must bear in mind, as shewn in the preliminary chapter on sexual selection, that characters which are limited in their development to one sex are always latent in the other. An imaginary illustration will best aid us in seeing the difficulty of the case: we may suppose that a fancier wished to make a breed of pigeons, in which the males alone should be coloured of a pale blue, whilst the females retained their former slaty tint. As with pigeons characters of all kinds are usually transmitted to both sexes equally, the fancier would have to try to convert this latter form of inheritance into sexually-limited transmission. All that he could do would be to persevere in selecting every male pigeon which was in the least degree of a paler blue; and the natural result of this process, if steadily carried on for a long time, and if the pale variations were strongly inherited or often recurred, would be to make his whole stock of a lighter blue. But our fancier would be compelled to match, generation after generation, his pale blue males with slaty females, for he wishes to keep the latter of this colour. The result would generally be the production either of a mongrel piebald lot, or more probably the speedy and complete loss of the pale-blue tint; for the primordial slaty colour would be transmitted with prepotent force. Supposing, however, that some pale-blue males and slaty females were produced during each successive generation, and were always crossed together; then the slaty females would have, if I may use the expression, much blue blood in their veins, for their fathers, grandfathers, &c., will all have been blue birds. Under these circumstances it is conceivable (though I know of no distinct facts rendering it probable) that the slaty females might acquire so strong a latent tendency to pale-blueness, that they would not destroy this colour in their male offspring, their female offspring still inheriting the slaty tint. If so the desired end of making a breed with the two sexes permanently different in colour might be gained.

The extreme importance, or rather necessity in the above case of the desired character, namely, pale-blueness, being present though in a latent state in the female, so that the male offspring should not be deteriorated, will be best appreciated as follows: the male of Sœmmerring's pheasant has a tail thirty-seven inches in length, whilst that of the female is only eight inches; the tail of the male common pheasant is about twenty inches, and that of the female twelve inches long. Now if the female Sœmmerring pheasant with her short tail were crossed with the male common pheasant, there can be no doubt that the male hybrid offspring would have a much longer tail than that of the pure offspring of the common pheasant. On the other hand, if the female common pheasant, with a tail much longer than that of the female Sœmmerring pheasant, were crossed with the male of the latter, the male hybrid offspring would have a much shorter tail than that of the pure offspring of Sœmmerring's pheasant.[3]

Our fancier, in order to make his new breed with the males of a pale-blue tint, and the females unchanged, would have to continue selecting the males during many generations; and each stage of paleness would have to be fixed in the males, and rendered latent in the females. The task would be an extremely difficult one, and has never been tried, but might possibly be successfully carried out. The chief obstacle would be the early and complete loss of the pale-blue tint, from the necessity of reiterated crosses with the slaty female, the latter not having at first any latent tendency to produce pale-blue offspring.

On the other hand, if one or two males were to vary ever so slightly in paleness, and the variations were from the first limited in their transmission to the male sex, the task of making a new breed of the desired kind would be easy, for such males would simply have to be selected and matched with ordinary females. An analogous case has actually occurred, for there are breeds of the pigeon in Belgium[4] in which the males alone are marked with black striæ. So again Mr. Tegetmeier has recently shewn[5] that dragons not rarely produce silver-coloured birds, which are almost always hens; and he himself has bred ten such females. It is on the other hand a very unusual event when a silver male is produced; so that nothing would be easier, if desired, than to make a breed of dragons with blue males and silver females. This tendency is indeed so strong that when Mr. Tegetmeier at last got a silver male and matched him with one of the silver females, he expected to get a breed with both sexes thus coloured; he was however disappointed, for the young male reverted to the blue colour of his grandfather, the young female alone being silver. No doubt with patience this tendency to reversion in the males, reared from an occasional silver male matched with a silver hen, might be eliminated, and then both sexes would be coloured alike; and this very process has been followed with success by Mr. Esquilant in the case of silver turbits.

With fowls, variations of colour, limited in their transmission to the male sex, habitually occur. When this form of inheritance prevails, it might well happen that some of the successive variations would be transferred to the female, who would then slightly resemble the male, as actually occurs in some breeds. Or again, the greater number, but not all, of the successive steps might be transferred to both sexes, and the female would then closely resemble the male. There can hardly be a doubt that this is the cause of the male pouter pigeon having a somewhat larger crop, and of the male carrier pigeon having somewhat larger wattles, than their respective females; for fanciers have not selected one sex more than the other, and have had no wish that these characters should be more strongly displayed in the male than in the female, yet this is the case with both breeds.

The same process would have to be followed, and the same difficulties encountered, if it were desired to make a breed with the females alone of some new colour.

Lastly, our fancier might wish to make a breed with the two sexes differing from each other, and both from the parent-species. Here the difficulty would be extreme, unless the successive variations were from the first sexually limited on both sides, and then there would be no difficulty. We see this with the fowl; thus the two sexes of the pencilled Hamburghs differ greatly from each other, and from the two sexes of the aboriginal Gallus bankiva; and both are now kept constant to their standard of excellence by continued selection, which would be impossible unless the distinctive characters of both were limited in their transmission. The Spanish fowl offers a more curious case; the male has an immense comb, but some of the successive variations, by the accumulation of which it was acquired, appear to have been transferred to the female; for she has a comb many times larger than that of the females of the parent-species. But the comb of the female differs in one respect from that of the male, for it is apt to lop over; and within a recent period it has been ordered by the fancy that this should always be the case, and success has quickly followed the order. Now the lopping of the comb must be sexually limited in its transmission, otherwise it would prevent the comb of the male from being perfectly upright, which would be abhorrent to every fancier. On the other hand, the uprightness of the comb in the male must likewise be a sexually-limited character, otherwise it would prevent the comb of the female from lopping over.

From the foregoing illustrations, we see that even with almost unlimited time at command, it would be an extremely difficult and complex, perhaps an impossible process, to change one form of transmission into the other through selection. Therefore, without distinct evidence in each case, I am unwilling to admit that this has been effected in natural species. On the other hand, by means of successive variations, which were from the first sexually limited in their transmission, there would not be the least difficulty in rendering a male bird widely different in colour or in any other character from the female; the latter being left unaltered, or slightly altered, or specially modified for the sake of protection.

As bright colours are of service to the males in their rivalry with other males, such colours would be selected, whether or not they were transmitted exclusively to the same sex. Consequently the females might be expected often to partake of the brightness of the males to a greater or less degree; and this occurs with a host of species. If all the successive variations were transmitted equally to both sexes, the females would be indistinguishable from the males; and this likewise occurs with many birds. If, however, dull colours were of high importance for the safety of the female during incubation, as with many ground birds, the females which varied in brightness, or which received through inheritance from the males any marked accession of brightness, would sooner or later be destroyed. But the tendency in the males to continue for an indefinite period transmitting to their female offspring their own brightness, would have to be eliminated by a change in the form of inheritance; and this, as shewn by our previous illustration, would be extremely difficult. The more probable result of the long-continued destruction of the more brightly-coloured females, supposing the equal form of transmission to prevail, would be the lessening or annihilation of the bright colours of the males, owing to their continual crossing with the duller females. It would be tedious to follow out all the other possible results; but I may remind the reader that if sexually-limited variations in brightness occurred in the females, even if they were not in the least injurious to them and consequently were not eliminated, yet they would not be favoured or selected, for the male usually accepts any female, and does not select the more attractive individuals; consequently these variations would be liable to be lost, and would have little influence on the character of the race; and this will aid in accounting for the females being commonly duller-coloured than the males.

In the eighth chapter instances were given, to which many might here be added, of variations occurring at various ages, and inherited at the corresponding age. It was also shewn that variations which occur late in life are commonly transmitted to the same sex in which they first appear; whilst variations occurring early in life are apt to be transmitted to both sexes; not that all the cases of sexually-limited transmission can thus be accounted for. It was further shewn that if a male bird varied by becoming brighter whilst young, such variations would be of no service until the age for reproduction had arrived, and there was competition between rival males. But in the case of birds living on the ground and commonly in need of the protection of dull colours, bright tints would be far more dangerous to the young and inexperienced, than to the adult males. Consequently the males which varied in brightness whilst young would suffer much destruction and be eliminated through natural selection; on the other hand, the males which varied in this manner when nearly mature, notwithstanding that they were exposed to some additional danger, might survive, and from being favoured through sexual selection, would procreate their kind. As a relation often exists between the period of variation and the form of transmission, if the bright-coloured young males were destroyed and the mature ones were successful in their courtship, the males alone would acquire brilliant colours and would transmit them exclusively to their male offspring. But I by no means wish to maintain that the influence of age on the form of transmission, is the sole cause of the great difference in brilliancy between the sexes of many birds.

When the sexes of birds differ in colour, it is interesting to determine whether the males alone have been modified by sexual selection, the females having been left unchanged, or only partially and indirectly thus changed; or whether the females have been specially modified through natural selection for the sake of protection. I will therefore discuss this question at some length, even more fully than its intrinsic importance deserves; for various curious collateral points may thus be conveniently considered.

Before we enter on the subject of colour, more especially in reference to Mr. Wallace's conclusions, it may be useful to discuss some other sexual differences under a similar point of view. A breed of fowls formerly existed in Germany[6] in which the hens were furnished with spurs; they were good layers, but they so greatly disturbed their nests with their spurs that they could not be allowed to sit on their own eggs. Hence at one time it appeared to me probable that with the females of the wild Gallinaceæ the development of spurs had been checked through natural selection, from the injury thus caused to their nests. This seemed all the more probable, as wing-spurs, which would not be injurious during incubation, are often as well-developed in the female as in the male; though in not a few cases they are rather larger in the male. When the male is furnished with leg-spurs the female almost always exhibits rudiments of them—the rudiment sometimes consisting of a mere scale, as in Gallus. Hence it might be argued that the females had aboriginally been furnished with well-developed spurs, but that these had subsequently been lost through disuse or natural selection. But if this view be admitted, it would have to be extended to innumerable other cases; and it implies that the female progenitors of the existing spur-bearing species were once encumbered with an injurious appendage.

In some few genera and species, as in Galloperdix, Acomus, and the Javan peacock (Pavo muticus), the females, as well as the males, possess well-developed leg-spurs. Are we to infer from this fact, that they construct a different sort of nest from that made by their nearest allies, and not liable to be injured by their spurs; so that the spurs have not been removed. Or are we to suppose that the females of these several species especially require spurs for their defence? It is a more probable conclusion that both the presence and absence of spurs in the females result from different laws of inheritance having prevailed, independently of natural selection. With the many females in which spurs appear as rudiments, we may conclude that some few of the successive variations, through which they were developed in the males, occurred very early in life, and were consequently transferred to the females. In the other and much rarer cases, in which the females possess fully developed spurs, we may conclude that all the successive variations were transferred to them; and that they gradually acquired and inherited the habit of not disturbing their nests.

The vocal organs and the feathers variously-modified for producing sound, as well as the proper instincts for using them, often differ in the two sexes, but are sometimes the same in both. Can such differences be accounted for by the males having acquired these organs and instincts, whilst the females have been saved from inheriting them, on account of the danger to which they would have been exposed by attracting the attention of birds or beasts of prey? This does not seem to me probable, when we think of the multitude of birds which with impunity gladden the country with their voices during the spring.[7] It is a safer conclusion that, as vocal and instrumental organs are of special service only to the males during their courtship, these organs were developed through sexual selection and their constant use in that sex alone—the successive variations and the effects of use having been from the first more or less limited in transmission to the male offspring.

Many analogous cases could be adduced; those for instance of the plumes on the head being generally longer in the male than in the female, sometimes of equal length in both sexes, and occasionally absent in the female,—these several cases occuring in the same group of birds. It would be difficult to account for such a difference between the sexes by the female having been benefited by possessing a slightly shorter crest than the male, and its consequent diminution or complete suppression through natural selection. But I will take a more favourable case, namely the length of the tail. The long train of the peacock would have been not only inconvenient but dangerous to the peahen during the period of incubation and whilst accompanying her young. Hence there is not the least à priori improbability in the development of her tail having been checked through natural selection. But the females of various pheasants, which apparently are exposed on their open nests to as much danger as the peahen, have tails of considerable length. The females as well as the males of the Menura superba have long tails, and they build a domed nest, which is a great anomaly in so large a bird. Naturalists have wondered how the female Menura could manage her tail during incubation; but it is now known[8] that she "enters the nest head first, and then turns round with her tail sometimes over her back, but more often bent round by her side. Thus in time the tail becomes quite askew, and is a tolerable guide to the length of time the bird has been sitting." Both sexes of an Australian kingfisher (Tanysiptera sylvia) have the middle tail-feathers greatly lengthened, and the female makes her nest in a hole; and as I am informed by Mr. R. B. Sharpe these feathers become much crumpled during incubation.

In these two latter cases the great length of the tail-feathers must be in some degree inconvenient to the female; and as in both species the tail-feathers of the female are somewhat shorter than those of the male, it might be argued that their full development had been prevented through natural selection. But if the development of the tail of the peahen had been checked only when it became inconveniently or dangerously great, she would have retained a much longer tail than she actually possesses; for her tail is not nearly so long, relatively to the size of her body, as that of many female pheasants, nor longer than that of the female turkey. It must also be borne in mind, that in accordance with this view as soon as the tail of the peahen became dangerously long, and its development was consequently checked, she would have continually reacted on her male progeny, and thus have prevented the peacock from acquiring his present magnificent train. We may therefore infer that the length of the tail in the peacock and its shortness in the peahen are the result of the requisite variations in the male having been from the first transmitted to the male offspring alone.

We are led to a nearly similar conclusion with respect to the length of the tail in the various species of pheasants. In the Eared pheasant (Crossoptilon auritum) the tail is of equal length in both sexes, namely, sixteen or seventeen inches; in the common pheasant it is about twenty inches long in the male and twelve in the female; in Sœmmerring's pheasant, thirty-seven inches in the male and only eight in the female; and lastly in Reeve's pheasant it is sometimes actually seventy-two inches long in the male and sixteen in the female. Thus in the several species, the tail of the female differs much in length, irrespectively of that of the male; and this can be accounted for, as it seems to me, with much more probability, by the laws of inheritance,—that is by the successive variations having been from the first more or less closely limited in their transmission to the male sex, than by the agency of natural selection, resulting from the length of tail being more or less injurious to the females of these several allied species.

We may now consider Mr. Wallace's arguments in regard to the sexual coloration of birds. He believes that the bright tints originally acquired through sexual selection by the males, would in all, or almost all cases, have been transmitted to the females, unless the transference had been checked through natural selection. I may here remind the reader that various facts opposed to this view have already been given under reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and lepidoptera. Mr. Wallace rests his belief chiefly, but not exclusively, as we shall see in the next chapter, on the following statement,[9] that when both sexes are coloured in a very conspicuous manner, the nest is of such a nature as to conceal the sitting bird; but when there is a marked contrast of colour between the sexes, the male being gay and the female dull-coloured, the nest is open and exposes the sitting bird to view. This coincidence, as far as it goes, certainly seems to favour the belief that the females which sit on open nests have been specially modified for the sake of protection; but we shall presently see that there is another and more probable explanation, namely, that conspicuous females have acquired the instinct of building domed nests oftener than dull-coloured birds. Mr. Wallace admits that there are, as might have been expected, some exceptions to his two rules, but it is a question whether the exceptions are not so numerous as seriously to invalidate them.

There is in the first place much truth in the Duke of Argyll's remark[10] that a large domed nest is more conspicuous to an enemy, especially to all tree-haunting carnivorous animals, than a smaller open nest. Nor must we forget that with many birds which build open nests, the male sits on the eggs and aids the female in feeding the young: this is the case, for instance, with Pyranga æstiva,[11] one of the most splendid birds in the United States, the male being vermilion, and the female light brownish-green. Now if brilliant colours had been extremely dangerous to birds whilst sitting on their open nests, the males in these cases would have suffered greatly. It might, however, be of such paramount importance to the male to be brilliantly coloured, in order to beat his rivals, that this may have more than compensated some additional danger.

Mr. Wallace admits that with the King-crows (Dicrurus), Orioles, and Pittidæ, the females are conspicuously coloured, yet build open nests; but he urges that the birds of the first group are highly pugnacious and could defend themselves; that those of the second group take extreme care in concealing their open nests, but this does not invariably hold good;[12] and that with the birds of the third group the females are brightly coloured chiefly on the under surface. Besides these cases, pigeons which are sometimes brightly, and almost always conspicuously coloured, and which are notoriously liable to the attacks of birds of prey, offer a serious exception to the rule, for they almost always build open and exposed nests. In another large family, that of the humming-birds, all the species build open nests, yet with some of the most gorgeous species the sexes are alike; and in the majority, the females, though less brilliant than the males, are brightly coloured. Nor can it be maintained that all female humming-birds, which are brightly coloured, escape detection by their tints being green, for some display on their upper surfaces red, blue, and other colours.[13]

In regard to birds which build in holes or construct domed nests, other advantages, as Mr. Wallace remarks, besides concealment are gained, such as shelter from the rain, greater warmth, and in hot countries protection from the sun;[14] so that it is no valid objection to his view that many birds having both sexes obscurely coloured build concealed nests.[15] The female Horn-bill (Buceros), for instance, of India and Africa is protected during incubation with extraordinary care, for she plasters up with her own excrement the orifice of the hole in which she sits on her eggs, leaving only a small orifice through which the male feeds her; she is thus kept a close prisoner during the whole period of incubation;[16] yet female horn-bills are not more conspicuously coloured than many other birds of equal size which build open nests. It is a more serious objection to Mr. Wallace's view, as is admitted by him, that in some few groups the males are brilliantly coloured and the females obscure, and yet the latter hatch their eggs in domed nests. This is the case with the Grallinæ of Australia, the Superb Warblers (Maluridæ) of the same country, the Sun-birds (Nectariniæ), and with several of the Australian Honey-suckers or Meliphagidæ.[17]

If we look to the birds of England we shall see that there is no close and general relation between the colours of the female and the nature of the nest which is constructed. About forty of our British birds (excluding those of large size which could defend themselves) build in holes in banks, rocks, or trees, or construct domed nests. If we take the colours of the female goldfinch, bullfinch, or blackbird, as a standard of the degree of conspicuousness, which is not highly dangerous to the sitting female, then out of the above forty birds, the females of only twelve can be considered as conspicuous to a dangerous degree, the remaining twenty-eight being inconspicuous.[18] Nor is there any close relation within the same genus between a well-pronounced difference in colour between the sexes, and the nature of the nest constructed. Thus the male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) differs much from the female, the male tree-sparrow (P. montanus) hardly at all, and yet both build well-concealed nests. The two sexes of the common fly-catcher (Musicapa grisola) can hardly be distinguished, whilst the sexes of the pied fly-catcher (M. luctuosa) differ considerably, and both species build in holes or conceal their nests. The female black-bird (Turdus merula) differs much, the female ring-ouzel (T. torquatus) differs less, and the female common thrush (T. musicus) hardly at all from their respective males; yet all build open nests. On the other hand, the not very distantly-allied water-ouzel (Cinclus aquaticus) builds a domed nest, and the sexes differ about as much as in the ring-ouzel. The black and red grouse (Tetrao tetrix and T. scoticus) build open nests in equally well-concealed spots, but in the one species the sexes differ greatly, and in the other very little.

Notwithstanding the foregoing objections, I cannot doubt, after reading Mr. Wallace's excellent essay, that looking to the birds of the world, a large majority of the species in which the females are conspicuously coloured (and in this case the males with rare exceptions are equally conspicuous), build concealed nests for the sake of protection. Mr. Wallace enumerates[19] a long series of groups in which this rule holds good; but it will suffice here to give, as instances, the more familiar groups of kingfishers, toucans, trogons, puff-birds (Capitonidæ), plantain-eaters (Musophagæ), woodpeckers, and parrots. Mr. Wallace believes that in these groups, as the males gradually acquired through sexual selection their brilliant colours, these were transferred to the females and were not eliminated by natural selection, owing to the protection which they already enjoyed from their manner of nidification. According to this view, their present manner of nesting was acquired before their present colours. But it seems to me much more probable that in most cases, as the females were gradually rendered more and more brilliant from partaking of the colours of the male, they were gradually led to change their instincts (supposing that they originally built open nests), and to seek protection by building domed or concealed nests. No one who studies, or instance, Audubon's account of the differences in the nests of the same species in the Northern and Southern United States,[20] will feel any great difficulty in admitting that birds, either by a change (in the strict sense of the word) of their habits, or through the natural selection of so-called spontaneous variations of instinct, might readily be led to modify their manner of nesting.

This way of viewing the relation, as far as it holds good, between the bright colours of female birds and their manner of nesting, receives some support from certain cases occurring in the Sahara Desert. Here, as in most other deserts, various birds, and many other animals, have had their colours adapted in a wonderful manner to the tints of the surrounding surface. Nevertheless there are, as I am informed by the Rev. Mr. Tristram, some curious exceptions to the rule; thus the male of the Monticola cyanea is conspicuous from his bright blue colour, and the female almost equally conspicuous from her mottled brown and white plumage; both sexes of two species of Dromolæa are of a lustrous black; so that these three species are far from receiving protection from their colours, yet they are able to survive, for they have acquired the habit of taking refuge from danger in holes or crevices in the rocks.

With respect to the above groups in which the females are conspicuously coloured and build concealed nests, it is not necessary to suppose that each separate species had its nidifying instinct specially modified; but only that the early progenitors of each group were gradually led to build domed or concealed nests, and afterwards transmitted this instinct, together with their bright colours, to their modified descendants. As far as it can be trusted, the conclusion is interesting, that sexual selection, together with equal or nearly equal inheritance by both sexes, have indirectly determined the manner of nidification of whole groups of birds.

According to Mr. Wallace, even in the groups in which the females, from being protected in domed nests during incubation, have not had their bright colours eliminated through natural selection, the males often differ in a slight, and occasionally in a considerable degree, from the females. This is a significant fact, for such differences in colour must be accounted for by some of the variations in the males having been from the first limited in transmission to the same sex; as it can hardly be maintained that these differences, especially when very slight, serve as a protection to the female. Thus all the species in the splendid group of the Trogons build in holes; and Mr. Gould gives figures[21] of both sexes of twenty-five species, in all of which, with one partial exception, the sexes differ sometimes slightly, sometimes conspciuously, in colour,—the males being always finer than the females, though the latter are likewise beautiful. All the species of kingfishers build in holes, and with most of the species the sexes are equally brilliant, and thus far Mr. Wallace's rule holds good; but in some of the Australian species the colours of the females are rather less vivid than those of the male; and in one splendidly-coloured species, the sexes differ so much that they were at first thought to be specifically distinct.[22] Mr. E. B. Sharpe, who has especially studied this group, has shewn me some American species (Ceryle) in which the breast of the male is belted with black. Again, in Carcineutes, the difference between the sexes is conspicuous: in the male the upper surface is dull-blue banded with black, the lower surface being partly fawn-coloured, and there is much red about the head; in the female the upper surface is reddish-brown banded with black, and the lower surface white with black markings. It is an interesting fact, as shewing how the same peculiar style of sexual colouring often characterises allied forms, that in three species of Dacelo the male differs from the female only in the tail being dull-blue banded with black, whilst that of the female is brown with blackish bars; so that here the tail differs in colour in the two sexes in exactly the same manner as the whole upper surface in the two sexes of Carcineutes.

With parrots, which likewise build in holes, we find analogous cases: in most of the species both sexes are brilliantly coloured and indistinguishable, but in not a few species the males are coloured rather more vividly than the females, or even very differently from them. Thus, besides other strongly-marked differences, the whole under surface of the male King Lory (Aprosmictus scapulatus) is scarlet, whilst the throat and chest of the female is green tinged with red: in the Euphema splendida there is a similar difference, the face and wing-coverts moreover of the female being of a paler blue than in the male.[23] In the family of the tits (Parinæ), which build concealed nests, the female of our common blue tomtit (Parus cæruleus) is "much less brightly coloured" than the male; and in the magnificent Sultan yellow tit of India the difference is greater.[24]

Again in the great group of the woodpeckers,[25] the sexes are generally nearly alike, but in the Megapicus validas all those parts of the head, neck, and breast, which are crimson in the male are pale brown in the female. As in several woodpeckers the head of the male is bright crimson, whilst that of the female is plain, it occurred to me that this colour might possibly make the female dangerously conspicuous, whenever she put her head out of the hole containing her nest, and consequently that this colour, in accordance with Mr. Wallace's belief, had been eliminated. This view is strengthened by what Malherbe states with respect to Indopicus carlotta; namely, that the young females, like the young males, have some crimson about their heads, but that this colour disappears in the adult female, whilst it is intensified in the adult male. Nevertheless the following considerations render this view extremely doubtful: the male takes a fair share in incubation,[26] and would be thus almost equally exposed to danger; both sexes of many species have their heads of an equally bright crimson; in other species the difference between the sexes in the amount of scarlet is so slight that it can hardly make any appreciable difference in the danger incurred; and lastly, the colouring of the head in the two sexes often differs slightly in other ways.

The cases, as yet given, of slight and graduated differences in colour between the males and females in the groups, in which as a general rule the sexes resemble each other, all relate to species which build domed or concealed nests. But similar gradations may likewise be observed in groups in which the sexes as a general rule resemble each other, but which build open nests. As I have before instanced the Australian parrots, so I may here-instance, without giving any details, the Australian pigeons.[27] It deserves especial notice that in all these cases the slight differences in plumage between the sexes are of the same general nature as the occasionally greater differences. A good illustration of this fact has already been afforded by those kingfishers in which either the tail alone or the whole upper surface of the plumage differs in the same manner in the two sexes. Similar cases may be observed with parrots and pigeons. The differences in colour between the sexes of the same species are, also, of the same general nature as the differences in colour between the distinct species of the same group. For when in a group in which the sexes are usually alike, the male differs considerably from the female, he is not coloured in a quite new style. Hence we may infer that within the same group the special colours of both sexes when they are alike, and the colours of the male, when he differs slightly or even considerably from the female, have been in most cases determined by the same general cause; this being sexual selection.

It is not probable, as has already been remarked, that differences in colour between the sexes, when very slight, can be of service to the female as a protection. Assuming, however, that they are of service, they might be thought to be cases of transition; but we have no reason to believe that many species at any one time are undergoing change. Therefore we can hardly admit that the numerous females which differ very slightly in colour from their males are now all commencing to become obscure for the sake of protection. Even if we consider somewhat more marked sexual differences, is it probable, for instance, that the head of the female chaffinch,—the crimson on the breast of the female bullfinch,—the green of the female greenfinch,—the crest of the female golden-crested wren, have all been rendered less bright by the slow process of selection for the sake of protection? I cannot think so; and still less with the slight differences between the sexes of those birds which build concealed nests. On the other hand, the differences in colour between the sexes, whether great or small, may to a large extent be explained on the principle of the successive variations, acquired by the males through sexual selection, having been from the first more or less limited in their transmission to the females. That the degree of limitation should differ in different species of the same group will not surprise any one who has studied the laws of inheritance, for they are so complex that they appear to us in our ignorance to be capricious in their action.[28]

As far as I can discover there are few large groups of birds in which all the species have both sexes alike and brilliantly coloured, but I hear from Mr. Sclater, that this appears to be the case with the Musophagæ or plantain-eaters. Nor do I believe that any large group exists in which the sexes of all the species are widely dissimilar in colour: Mr. Wallace informs me that the chatterers of S. America (Cotingidæ) offer one of the best instances; but with some of the species, in which the male has a splendid red breast, the female exhibits some red on her breast; and the females of other species shew traces of the green and other colours of the males. Nevertheless we have a near approach to close sexual similarity or dissimilarity throughout several groups: and this, from what has just been said of the fluctuating nature of inheritance, is a somewhat surprising circumstance. But that the same laws should largely prevail with allied animals is not surprising. The domestic fowl has produced a great number of breeds and sub-breeds, and in these the sexes generally differ in plumage; so that it has been noticed as an unusual circumstance when in certain sub-breeds they resemble each other. On the other hand, the domestic pigeon has likewise produced a vast number of distinct breeds and sub-breeds, and in these, with rare exceptions, the two sexes are identically alike. Therefore if other species of Gallus and Columba were domesticated and varied, it would not be rash to predict that similar rules of sexual similarity and dissimilarity, depending on the form of transmission, would hold good in both cases. In like manner the same form of transmission has generally prevailed under nature throughout the same groups, although marked exceptions to this rule occur. Thus within the same family or even genus, the sexes may be identically alike, or very different in colour. Instances have already been given in the same genus, as with sparrows, fly-catchers, thrushes and grouse. In the family of pheasants the sexes of almost all the species are wonderfully dissimilar, but are quite alike in the eared pheasant or Crossoptilon auritum. In two species of Chloephaga, a genus of geese, the male cannot be distinguished from the females, except by size; whilst in two others, the sexes are so unlike that they might easily be mistaken for distinct species.[29]

The laws of inheritance can alone account for the following cases, in which the female acquires, late in life, certain characters proper to the male, and ultimately comes to resemble him more or less completely. Here protection can hardly have come into play. Mr. Blyth informs me that the females of Oriolus melanocephalus and of some allied species, when sufficiently mature to breed, differ considerably in plumage from the adult males; but after the second or third moults they differ only in their beaks having a slight greenish tinge. In the dwarf bitterns (Ardetta), according to the same authority, "the male acquires his final livery at the first moult, the female not before the third or fourth moult; in the meanwhile she presents an intermediate garb, which is ultimately exchanged for the same livery as that of the male." So again the female Falco peregrinus acquires her blue plumage more slowly than the male. Mr. Swinhoe states that with one of the Drongo shrikes (Dicrurus macrocercus) the male whilst almost a nestling, moults his soft brown plumage and becomes of a uniform glossy greenish-black; but the female retains for a long time the white striæ and spots on the axillary feathers; and does not completely assume the uniform black colour of the male for three years. The same excellent observer remarks that in tile spring of the second year the female spoonbill (Platalea) of China resembles the male of the first year, and that apparently it is not until the third spring that she acquires the same adult plumage as that possessed by the male at a much earlier age. The female Bombycilla carolinensis differs very little from the male, but the appendages, which like beads of red sealing-wax ornament the wing-feathers,[30] are not developed in her so early in life as in the male. In the male of an Indian parrakeet (Palæornis javenicus) the upper mandible is coral-red from his earliest youth, but in the female, as Mr. Blyth has observed with caged and wild birds, it is at first black and does not become red until the bird is at least a year old, at which age the sexes resemble each other in all respects. Both sexes of the wild turkey are ultimately furnished with a tuft of bristles on the breast, but in two-year-old birds the tuft is about four inches long in the male and hardly apparent in the female; when, however, the latter has reached her fourth year, it is from four to five inches in length.[31]

These cases must not be confounded with those where diseased or old females abnormally assume masculine characters, nor with those where fertile females, whilst young, acquire the characters of the male, through variation or some unknown cause.[32] But all these cases have so much in common that they depend, according to the hypothesis of pangenesis, on gemmules derived from each part of the male being present, though latent, in the female; their development following on some slight change in the elective affinities of her constituent tissues.

A few words must be added on changes of plumage in relation to the season of the year. From reasons formerly assigned there can be little doubt that the elegant plumes, long pendant feathers, crests, &c., of egrets, herons, and many other birds, which are developed and retained only during the summer, serve for ornamental and nuptial purposes, though common to both sexes. The female is thus rendered more conspicuous during the period of incubation than during the winter; but such birds as herons and egrets would be able to defend themselves. As, however, plumes would probably be inconvenient and certainly of no use during the winter, it is possible that the habit of moulting twice in the year may have been gradually acquired through natural selection for the sake of casting off inconvenient ornaments during the winter. But this view cannot be extended to the many waders, whose summer and winter plumages differ very little in colour. With defenceless species, in which both sexes, or the males alone, become extremely conspicuous during the breeding-season,—or when the males acquire at this season such long wing or tail-feathers as to impede their flight, as with Cosmetornis and Vidua,—it certainly at first appears highly probable that the second moult has been gained for the special purpose of throwing off these ornaments. We must, however, remember that many birds, such as some of the Birds of Paradise, the Argus pheasant and peacock, do not cast their plumes during the winter; and it can hardly be maintained that the constitution of these birds, at least of the Gallinaceæ, renders a double moult impossible, for the ptarmigan moults thrice in the year.[33] Hence it must be considered as doubtful whether the many species which moult their ornamental plumes or lose their bright colours during the winter, have acquired this habit on account of the inconvenience or danger which they would otherwise have suffered.

I conclude, therefore, that the habit of moulting twice in the year was in most or all cases first acquired for some distinct purpose, perhaps for gaining a warmer winter covering; and that variations in the plumage occurring during the summer were accumulated through sexual selection, and transmitted to the offspring at the same season of the year; that such variations were inherited either by both sexes or by the males alone, according to the form of inheritance which prevailed. This appears more probable than that the species in all cases originally tended to retain their ornamental plumage during the winter, but were saved from this through natural selection, resulting from the inconvenience or danger thus caused.

I have endeavoured in this chapter to shew that the arguments are not trustworthy in favour of the view that weapons, bright colours, and various ornaments, are now confined to the males owing to the conversion, by natural selection, of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes, into transmission to the male sex alone. It is also doubtful whether the colours of many female birds are due to the preservation, for the sake of protection, of variations which were from the first limited in their transmission to the female sex. But it will be convenient to defer any further discussion on this subject until I treat, in the following chapter, of the differences in plumage between the young and old.

  1. Fourth edition, 1866, p. 241.
  2. 'Westminster Review,' July, 1867. 'Journal of Travel,' vol. i. 1868, p. 73.
  3. Temminck says that the tail of the female Phasianus Sœmmerringii is only six inches long, 'Planches coloriées,' vol. v. 1838, pp. 487 and 488: the measurements above given were made for me by Mr. Sclater. For the common pheasant, see Macgillivray, 'Hist. Brit. Birds,' vol. i. pp. 118–121.
  4. Dr. Chapuis, 'Le Pigeon Voyageur Belge,' 1865, p. 87.
  5. The 'Field,' Sept. 1872.
  6. Bechstein, 'Naturgesch. Deutschlands,' 1793, B. iii. s. 339.
  7. Daines Barrington, however, thought it probable ('Phil. Transact.' 1773, p.164) that few female birds sing, because the talent would have been dangerous to them during incubation. He adds, that a similar view may possibly account for the inferiority of the female to the male in plumage.
  8. Mr. Ramsay, in 'Proc. Zoolog. Soc.' 1868, p. 50.
  9. 'Journal of Travel,' edited by A. Murray, vol. i. 1868, p. 78.
  10. 'Journal of Travel,' edited by A. Murray, vol. i. 1868, p. 281.
  11. Audubon, 'Ornitnological Biography,' vol. i. p. 233.
  12. Jerdon, 'Birds of India,' vol. ii. p. 108. Gould's 'Handbook of the Birds of Australia,' vol. i. p. 463.
  13. For instance, the female Eupetomena macroura has the head and tail dark blue with reddish loins; the female Lampornis porphyrurus is blackish-green on the upper surface, with the lores and sides of the throat crimson; the female Eulampis jugularis has the top of the head and back green, but the loins and the tail are crimson. Many other instances of highly conspicuous females could be given. See Mr. Gould's magnificent work on this family.
  14. Mr. Salvin noticed in Guatemala ('Ibis,' 1864, p. 375) that humming-birds were much more unwilling to leave their nests during very hot weather, when the sun was shining brightly, as if their eggs would be thus injured, than during cool, cloudy, or rainy weather.
  15. I may specify, as instances of dull-coloured birds building concealed nests, the species belonging to eight Australian genera, described in Gould's 'Handbook of the Birds of Australia,' vol. i. pp. 340, 362, 365, 383, 387, 389, 391, 414.
  16. Mr. C. Home, 'Proc. Zoolog. Soc.' 1869, p. 243.
  17. On the nidification and colours of these latter species, see Gould's 'Handbook,' &c., vol. i. pp. 504, 527.
  18. I have consulted, on this subject, Macgillivray's ' British Birds,' and though doubts may be entertained in some cases in regard to the degree of concealment of the nest, and to the degree of conspicuousness of the female, yet the following birds, which all lay their eggs in holes or in domed nests, can hardly be considered, by the above standard, as conspicuous: Passer, 2 species; Sturnus, of which the female is considerably less brilliant than the male; Cinclus; Motacilla boarula (?); Erithacus (?); Fruticola, 2 sp.; Saxicola; Ruticilla, 2 sp.; Sylvia, 3 sp.; Parus, 3 sp.; Mecistura; Anorthura; Certhia; Sitta; Yunx; Muscicapa, 2 sp.; Hirundo, 3 sp.; and Cypselus. The females of the following 12 birds may be considered as conspicuous, according to the same standard, viz., Pastor, Motacilla alba, Parus major and P. cæruleus, Upupa, Picus, 4 sp., Coracias, Alcedo, and Merops.
  19. 'Journal of Travel,' edited by A. Murray, vol. i. p. 78.
  20. See many statements in the 'Ornithological Biography.' See, also, some curious observations on the nests of Italian birds by Eugenio Bettoni, in the 'Atti della Società Italiana,' vol. xi. 1869, p. 487.
  21. See his 'Monograph of the Trogonidæ,' first edition.
  22. Namely Cyanalcyon. Gould's 'Handbook to the Birds of Australia,' vol. i. p. 133; see, also, pp 130, 136.
  23. Every gradation of difference between the sexes may be followed in the parrots of Australia. See Gould's 'Handbook,' &c., vol. ii. pp. 14–102.
  24. Macgillivray's 'British Birds,' vol. ii. p. 433. Jerdon, 'Birds of India,' vol. ii. p. 282.
  25. All the following facts are taken from M. Malherbe's magnificent 'Monographie des Picidées,' 1861.
  26. Audubon's 'Ornithological Biography,' vol. ii. p. 75; see also the 'Ibis,' vol. i. p. 268.
  27. Gould's 'Handbook to the Birds of Australia,' vol. ii. pp. 109–149.
  28. See remarks to this effect in my work on 'Variation under Domestication,' vol. ii. chap. xii.
  29. The 'Ibis,' vol. vi. 1864, p. 122.
  30. When the male courts the female, these ornaments are vibrated, and "are shewn off to great advantage," on the outstretched wings: A. Leith Adams, 'Field and Forest Rambles,' 1873, p. 153.
  31. On Ardetta, Translation of Cuvier's 'Règne Animal,' by Mr. Blyth, footnote, p. 159. On the Peregrine Falcon, Mr. Blyth, in Charlesworth's 'Mag. of Nat. Hist.' vol. i. 1837, p. 304. On Dicrurus, 'Ibis,' 1863, p. 44. On the Platalea, 'Ibis,' vol. vi. 1864, p. 366. On the Bombycilla, Audubon's 'Ornitholog. Biography,' vol. i. p. 229. On the Palæornis, see, also, Jerdon, 'Birds of India,' vol. i. p. 263. On the wild turkey, Audubon, ibid. vol. i. p. 15; but I hear from Judge Caton that in Illinois the female very rarely acquires a tuft. Analogous cases with the females of Petrocossyphus are given by Mr. R. B. Sharpe, 'Proc. Zoolog. Soc.' 1872, p. 496.
  32. Of these latter cases Mr. Blyth has recorded (Translation of Cuvier's 'Règne Animal,' p. 158) various instances with Lanius, Ruticilla, Linaria, and Anas. Audubon has also recorded a similar case ('Ornith. Biog.' vol. v. p. 519) with Tyranga æstiva.
  33. See Gould's 'Birds of Great Britain.'