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Ch. 19: Music and Dancing in Nature

In reading books of Natural History we meet with numerous instances of
birds possessing the habit of assembling together, in many cases always
at the same spot, to indulge in antics and dancing performances, with or
without the accompaniment of music, vocal or instrumental; and by
instrumental music is here meant all sounds other than vocal made
habitually and during the more or less orderly performances; as, for
instance, drumming and tapping noises; smiting of wings; and humming,
whip-cracking, fan-shutting, grinding, scraping, and horn-blowing
sounds, produced as a rule by the quills.

There are human dances, in which only one person performs at a time, the
rest of the company looking on; and some birds, in widely separated
genera, have dances of this kind. A striking example is the Rupicola, or
cock of-the-rock, of tropical South America. A mossy level spot of earth
surrounded by bushes is selected for a dancing-place, and kept well
cleared of sticks and stones; round this area the birds assemble, when a
cock-bird, with vivid orange-scarlet crest and plumage, steps into it,
and, with spreading wings and tail, begins a series of movements as if
dancing a minuet; finally, carried away with excitement, he leaps and
gyrates in the most astonishing manner, until, becoming exhausted, he
retires, and another bird takes his place.

In other species all the birds in a company unite in the set
performances, and seem to obey an impulse which affects them
simultaneously and in the same degree; but sometimes one bird prompts
the others and takes a principal part. One of the most curious instances
I have come across in reading is contained in Mr. Bigg-Wither's
_Pioneering in South Brazil._ He relates that one morning in the dense
forest his attention was roused by the unwonted sound of a bird
singing--songsters being rare in that district. His men, immediately
they caught the sound, invited him to follow them, hinting that he would
probably witness a very curious sight. Cautiously making their way
through the dense undergrowth, they finally came in sight of a small
stony spot of ground, at the end of a tiny glade; and on this spot, some
on the stone and some on the shrubs, were assembled a number of little
birds, about the size of tom-tits, with lovely blue plumage and red
top-knots. One was perched quite still on a twig, singing merrily, while
the others were keeping time with wings and feet in a kind of dance, and
all twittering an accompaniment. He watched them for some time, and was
satisfied that they were having a ball and concert, and thoroughly
enjoying themselves; they then became alarmed, and the performance
abruptly terminated, the birds all going off in different directions.
The natives told him that these little creatures were known as the
"dancing birds."

This species was probably solitary, except when assembling for the
purpose of display; but in a majority of cases, especially in the
Passerine order, the solitary species performs its antics alone, or with
no witness but its mate. Azara, describing a small finch, which he aptly
named _Oscilador,_ says that early and late in the day it mounts up
vertically to a moderate height; then, flies off to a, distance of
twenty yards, describing a perfect curve in its passage; turning, it
flies back over the imaginary line it has traced, and so on repeatedly,
appearing like a pendulum swung in space by an invisible thread.

Those who seek to know the cause and origin of this kind of display and
of song in animals are referred to Darwin's _Descent of Man_ for an
explanation. The greater part of that work is occupied with a laborious
argument intended to prove that the love-feeling inspires the animals
engaged in these exhibitions, and that sexual selection, or the
voluntary selection of mates by the females, is the final cause of all
set musical and dancing performances, as well as of bright and
harmonious colouring, and of ornaments.

The theory, with regard to birds is, that in the love-season, when the
males are excited and engage in courtship, the females do not fall to
the strongest and most active, nor to those that are first in the field;
but that in a large number of species they are endowed with a faculty
corresponding to the aesthetic feeling or taste in man, and deliberately
select males for their superiority in some aesthetic quality, such as
graceful or fantastic motions, melody of voice, brilliancy of colour, or
perfection of ornaments. Doubtless all birds were originally
plain-coloured, without ornaments and without melody, and it is assumed
that so it would always have been in many cases but for the action of
this principle, which, like natural selection, has gone on accumulating
countless small variations, tending to give a greater lustre to the
species in each case, and resulting in all that we most admire in the
animal world--the Rupicola's flame-coloured mantle, the peacock's crest
and starry train, the joyous melody of the lark, and the pretty or
fantastic dancing performances of birds.

My experience is that mammals and birds, with few exceptions--probably
there are really no exceptions--possess the habit of indulging
frequently in more or less regular or set performances, with or without
sound, or composed of sound exclusively; and that these performances,
which in many animals are only discordant cries and choruses,
and uncouth, irregular motions, in the more aerial, graceful, and
melodious kinds take immeasurably higher, more complex, and more
beautiful forms. Among the mammalians the instinct appears
almost universal; but their displays are, as a rule, less admirable than
those seen in birds. There are some kinds, it is true, like the
squirrels and monkeys, of arboreal habits, almost birdlike in their
restless energy, and in the swiftness and certitude of their motions, in
which the slightest impulse can be instantly expressed in graceful or
fantastic action; others, like the Chinchillidae family, have greatly
developed vocal organs, and resemble birds in loquacity; but mammals
generally, compared with birds, are slow and heavy, and not so readily
moved to exhibitions of the kind I am discussing.

The terrestrial dances, often very elaborate, of heavy birds, like those
of the gallinaceous kind, are represented in the more volatile species
by performances in the air, and these are very much more beautiful;
while a very large number of birds--hawks, vultures, swifts, swallows,
nightjars, storks, ibises, spoonbills, and gulls--circle about in the
air, singly or in flocks. Sometimes, in serene weather, they rise to a
vast altitude, and float about in one spot for an hour or longer at a
stretch, showing a faint bird-cloud in the blue, that does not change
its form, nor grow lighter and denser like a flock of starlings; but in
the seeming confusion there is perfect order, and amidst many hundreds
each swift- or slow-gliding figure keeps its proper distance with such
exactitude that no two ever touch, even with the extremity of the
long-wings, flapping or motionless:--such a multitude, and such
miraculous precision in the endless curving motions of all the members
of it, that the spectator can lie for an hour on his back without
weariness watching this mystic cloud-dance in the empyrean.

The black-faced ibis of Patagonia, a bird nearly as large as a turkey,
indulges in a curious mad performance, usually in the evening when
feeding-time is over. The birds of a flock, while winging their way to
the roosting-place, all at once seem possessed with frenzy,
simultaneously dashing downwards with amazing violence, doubling about
in the most eccentric manner; and when close to the surface rising again
to repeat the action, all the while making the air palpitate for miles
around with their hard, metallic cries. Other ibises, also birds of
other genera, have similar aerial performances.

The displays of most ducks known to me take the form of mock fights on
the water; one exception is the handsome and loquacious whistling
widgeon of La Plata, which has a pretty aerial performance. A dozen or
twenty birds rise up until they appear like small specks in the sky, and
sometimes disappear from sight altogether; and at that great altitude
they continue hovering in one spot, often for an hour or longer,
alternately closing and separating; the fine, bright, whistling notes
and flourishes of the male curiously harmonizing with the grave,
measured notes of the female; and every time they close they slap each
other on the wings so smartly that the sound can be distinctly heard,
like applauding hand-claps, even after the birds have ceased to be

The rails, active, sprightly birds with powerful and varied voices, are
great performers; but owing to the nature of the ground they inhabit and
to their shy, suspicious character, it is not easy to observe their
antics. The finest of the Platan rails is the ypecaha, a beautiful,
active bird about the size of the fowl. A number of ypecahas have their
assembling place on a small area of smooth, level ground, just above the
water, and hemmed in by dense rush beds. First, one bird among the
rushes emits a powerful cry, thrice repeated; and this is a note of
invitation, quickly responded to by other birds from all sides as they
hurriedly repair to the usual place. In a few moments they appear, to
the number of a dozen or twenty, bursting from the rushes and running
into the open space, and instantly beginning the performance. This is a
tremendous screaming concert. The screams they utter have a certain
resemblance to the human voice, exerted to its utmost pitch and
expressive of extreme terror, frenzy, and despair. A long, piercing
shriek, astonishing for its vehemence and power, is succeeded by a lower
note, as if in the first the creature had well nigh exhausted itself:
this double scream is repeated several times, and followed by other
sounds, resembling, as they rise and fall, half smothered cries of pains
and moans of anguish. Suddenly the unearthly shrieks are renewed in all
their power. While screaming the birds rush from side to side, as if
possessed with madness, the wings spread and vibrating, the long-beak
wide open and raised vertically. This exhibition lasts three or four
minntes, after which the assembly peacefully breaks up.

The singular wattled, wing-spurred, and long-, toed jacana has a
remarkable performance, which seems specially designed to bring out the
concealed beauty of the silky, greenish-golden wing-quills-The birds go
singly or in pairs, and a dozen or fifteen individuals may be found in a
marshy place feeding within sight of each other. Occasionally, in
response to a note of invitation, they all in a moment leave off feeding
and fly to one spot, and, forming a close cluster, and emitting short,
excited, rapidly repeated notes, display their wings, like beautiful
flags grouped loosely together: some hold the wings up vertically and
motionless; others, half open and vibrating rapidly, while still others
wave them up and down with a slow, measured motion.

In the ypecaha and jacana displays both sexes take part. A stranger
performance is that of the spur-winged lapwing of the same region--a
species resembling the lapwing of Europe, but a third larger, brighter
coloured, and armed with spurs. The lapwing display, called by the
natives its "dance," or "serious dance"--by which they mean square
dance--requires three birds for its performance, and is, so far as I
know, unique in this respect. The birds are so fond of it that they
indulge in it all the year round, and at frequent intervals during the
day, also on moonlight nights. If a person watches any two birds for
some time--for they live in pairs--he will see another lapwing, one of a
neighbouring couple, rise up and fly to them, leaving his own mate to
guard their chosen ground; and instead of resenting this visit as an
unwarranted intrusion on their domain, as they would certainly resent
the approach of almost any other bird, they welcome it with notes and
signs of pleasure. Advancing to the visitor, they place themselves
behind it; then all three, keeping step, begin a rapid march, uttering
resonant drumming notes in time with their movements; the notes of the
pair behind being emitted in a stream, like a drum-roll, while the
leader utters loud single notes at regular intervals. The march ceases;
the leader elevates his wings and stands erect and motionless, still
uttering loud notes; while the other two, with puffed-out plumage and
standing exactly abreast stoop forward and downward until the tips of
their beaks touch the ground, and, sinking their rhythmical voices to a
murmur, remain for some time in this posture. The performance is then
over and the visitor goes back to his own ground and mate, to receive a
visitor himself later on.

In the Passerine order, not the least remarkable displays are witnessed
in birds that are not accounted songsters, as they do not possess the
highly developed vocal organ confined to the suborder Oscines. The
tyrant-birds, which represent in South America the fly-catchers of the
Old World, all have displays of some kind; in a vast majority of cases
these are simply joyous, excited duets between male and female, composed
of impetuous and more or less confused notes and screams, accompanied
with beating of wings and other gestures. In some species choruses take
the place of duets, while in others entirely different forms of display
have been developed. In one group--Cnipolegus--the male indulges in
solitary antics, while the silent, modest-coloured female keeps in
hiding. Thus, the male of Cnipolegus Hudsoni, an intensely
black-plumaged species with a concealed white wing-band, takes his stand
on a dead twig on the summit of a bush. At intervals he leaves his
perch, displaying the intense white on the quills, and producing, as the
wings are thrown open and shut alternately, the effect of successive
flashes of light. Then suddenly the bird begins revolving in the air
about its perch, like a moth wheeling round and close to the flame of a
candle, emitting a series of sharp clicks and making a loud humming with
the wings. While performing this aerial waltz the black and white on the
quills mix, the wings appearing like a grey mist encircling the body.
The fantastic dance over, the bird drops suddenly on to its perch again;
and, until moved to another display, remains as stiff and motionless as
a bird carved out of jet.

The performance of the scissors-tail, another tyrant-bird, is also
remarkable. This species is grey and white, with black head and tail and
a crocus-yellow crest. On the wing it looks like a large swallow, but
with the two outer tail-feathers a foot long. The scissors-tails always
live in pairs, but at sunset several pairs assemble, the birds calling
excitedly to each other; they then mount upwards, like rockets, to a
great height in the anand, after wheeling about for a few moments,
pro-cipitate themselves downwards with amazing violence in a wild
zigzag, opening and shutting the long tail-feathers like a pair of
shears, and producing loud whirring sounds, as of clocks being wound
rapidly up, with a slight pause after each turn of the key. This aerial
dance over, they alight in separate couples on the tree tops, each
couple joining in a kind of duet of rapidly repeated, castanet-like

The displays of the wood-hewers, or Dendrocolap-tidae, another extensive
family, resemble those of the tyrant-birds in being chiefly duets, male
and female singing excitedly in piercing or resonant voices, and with
much action. The habit varies somewhat in the cachalote, a Patagonian
species of the genus Homorus, about the size of the missel-thrush. Old
and young birds live in a family together, and at intervals, on any fine
day, they engage in a grand screaming contest, which may be heard
distinctly at a distance of a mile and a half. One bird mounts on to a
bush and calls, and instantly all the others hurry to the spot, and
burst out into a chorus of piercing cries that sound like peals and
shrieks of insane laughter. After the chorus, they all pursue each other
wildly about among the bushes for some minutes.

In some groups the usual duet-like performances have developed into a
kind of harmonious singing, which is very curious and pleasant to hear.
This is pre-eminently the case with the oven-birds, as D'Orbigney first
remarked. Thus, in the red oven-bird, the first bird, on the appearance
of its mate flying to join it, begins to emit loud, measured notes, and
sometimes a continuous trill, somewhat metallic in sound; but
immediately on the other bird striking in this introductory passage is
changed to triplets, strongly accented on the first note, in a _tempo
vivace;_ while the second bird utters loud single notes in the same
time. While thus singing they stand facing each other, necks
outstretched and tails expanded, the wings of the first bird vibrating
rapidly to the rapid utterance, while those of the second bird beat
measured time. The finale consists of three or four notes, uttered by
the second bird alone, strong and clear, in an ascending scale, the last
very piercing.

In the melodists proper the displays, in a majority of cases, are
exclusively vocal, the singer sitting still on his perch. In the
Troupials, a family of starling-like birds numbering about one hundred
and forty species, there are many that accompany singing with pretty or
grotesque antics. The male screaming cow-bird of La Plata, when perched,
emits a hollow-sounding internal note that swells at the end into a
sharp metallic ring, almost bell-like: this is uttered with wings and
tail spread and depressed, the whole plumage being puffed out as in a
strutting turkey-cock, while the bird hops briskly up and down on its
perch as if dancing. The bell-like note of the male is followed by an
impetuous scream from the female, and the dance ends. Another species,
the common Argentine cow-bird of La Plata, when courting puffs out his
glossy rich violet plumage, and, with wings vibrating, emits a
succession of deep internal notes, followed by a set song in clear,
ringing tones; and then, suddenly taking wing, he flies straight away,
close to the surface, fluttering like a moth, and at a distance of
twenty to thirty yards turns and flies in a wide circle round the
female, singing loudly all the time, hedging her in with melody as it

Many songsters in widely different families possess the habit of soaring
and falling alternately while singing, and in some cases all the aerial
postures and movements, the swift or slow descent, vertical, often, with
oscillations, or in a spiral, and sometimes with a succession of smooth
oblique lapses, seem to have an admirable correspondence with the
changing and falling voice--melody and motion being united in a more
intimate and beautiful way than in the most perfect and poetic forms of
human dancing.

One of the soaring singers is a small yellow field-finch of La
Plata--Sycalis luteola; and this species, like some others, changes the
form of its display with the seasons. It lives in immense flocks, and
during the cold season it has, like most finches, only aerial pastimes,
the birds wheeling about in a cloud, pursuing each other with lively
chirpings. In August, when the trees begin to blossom, the flock betakes
itself to a plantation, and, sitting on the branches, the birds sing in
a concert of innumerable voices, producing a great volume of sound, as
of a high wind when heard at a distance. Heard near, it is a great mass
of melody; not a confused tangle of musical sounds as when a host of
Troupials sing in concert, but the notes, although numberless, seem to
flow smoothly and separately, producing an effect on the ear similar to
that which rain does on the sight, when the sun shines on and lightens
up the myriads of falling drops all falling one way. In this manner the
birds sing for hours, without intermission, every day. Then the passion
of love infects them; the pleasant choir breaks up, and its ten thousand
members scatter wide over the surrounding fields and pasture lands.
During courtship the male has a feeble, sketchy music, but his singing
is then accompanied with very charming love antics. His circlings about
the hen-bird; his numberless advances and retreats, and little soarings
above her when his voice swells with importunate passion; his fluttering
lapses back to earth, where he lies prone with outspread, tremulous
wings, a suppliant at her feet, his languishing voice meanwhile dying
down to lispings--all these apt and graceful motions seem to express the
very sickness of the heart. But the melody during this emotional period
is nothing. After the business of pairing and nest-building is over, his
musical displays take a new and finer form. He sits perched on a stalk
above the grass, and at intervals soars up forty or fifty yards high;
rising, he utters a series of long melodious notes; then he descends in
a graceful spiral, the set of the motionless wings giving him the
appearance of a slowly-falling parachute; the voice then also falls, the
notes coming lower, sweeter, and more expressive until he reaches the
surface. After alighting the song continues, the strains becoming
longer, thinner, and clearer, until they dwindle to the finest threads
of sound and faintest tinklings, as from a cithern touched by fairy
fingers. The great charm of the song is in this slow gradation from the
somewhat throaty notes emitted by the bird when ascendino-to the
excessively attenuated sounds at the close.

In conclusion of this part I shall speak of one species more--the
white-banded mocking-bird of Patagonia, which greatly excels all other
songsters known to me in the copiousness, variety and brilliant
character of its music. Concealed in the foliage this bird will sing by
the half-hour, reproducing with miraculous fidelity the more or less
melodious set songs of a score of species--a strange and beautiful
performance; but wonderful as it seems while it lasts, one almost ceases
to admire this mimicking bird-art when the mocker, as if to show by
contrast his unapproachable superiority, bursts into his own divine
song, uttered with a power, abandon and joyousness resembling, but
greatly exceeding, that of the skylark "singing at heaven's gate;" the
notes issuing in a continuous torrent; the voice so brilliant and
infinitely varied, that if "rivalry and emulation" have as large a place
in feathered breasts as some imagine all that hear this surpassing
melody might well languish ever after in silent despair.

In a vast majority of the finest musical performances the same notes are
uttered in the same order, and after an interval the song is repeated
without any variation: and it seems impossible that we could in any
other way have such beautiful contrasts and harmonious lights and
shades--the whole song, so to speak, like a "melody sweetly played in
tune." This seeming impossibility is accomplished in the mocking-bird's
song: the notes never come in the same order again and again, but, as if
inspired, in a changed order, with variations and new sounds: and here
again it has some resemblance to the skylark's song, and might be
described as the lark's song with endless variations and brightened and
spiritualized in a degree that cannot be imagined.

This mocking-bird is one of those species that accompany music with
appropriate motions. And just as its song is, so to speak, inspired and
an im-provization, unlike any song the bird has ever uttered, so its
motions all have the same character of spontaneity, and follow no order,
and yet have a grace and passion and a perfect harmony with the music
unparalleled among birds possessing a similar habit. While singing he
passes from bush to bush, sometimes delaying a few moments on and at
others just touching the summits, and at times sinking out of sight in
the foliage: then, in an access of rapture, soaring vertically to a
height of a hundred feet, with measured wing-beats, like those of a
heron: or, mounting suddenly in a wild, hurried zigzag, then slowly
circling downwards, to sit at last with tail outspread fanwise, and
vans, glistening white in the sunshine, expanded and vibrating, or waved
languidly up and down, with, a motion like that of some broad-winged
butterfly at rest on a flower.

I wish now to put this question: What relation that we can see or
imagine to the passion of love and the business of courtship, have these
dancing and vocal performances in nine cases out of ten? In such cases,
for instance, as that of the scissors-tail tyrant-bird, and its
pyrotechnic evening displays, when a number of couples leave their nests
containing eggs and young to join in a wild aerial dance: the mad
exhibitions of ypecahas and ibises, and the jacanas' beautiful
exhibition of grouped wings: the triplet dances of the spur-winged
lapwing, to perform which two birds already mated are compelled to call
in a third bird to complete the set: the harmonious duets of the
oven-birds, and the duets and choruses of nearly all the wood-hewers,
and the wing-slapping aerial displays of the whistling widgeons--will it
be seriously contended that the female of this species makes choice of
the male able to administer the most vigorous and artistic slaps?

The believer in the theory would put all these cases lightly aside, to
cite that of the male cow-bird practising antics before the female and
drawing a wide circle of melody round her; or that of the jet-black,
automaton-like, dancing tyrant-bird; and concerning this species he
would probably say that the plain-plumaged female went about unseen,
critically watching the dancing of different males, to discover the most
excellent performer according to the traditional standard. And this was,
in substance, what Darwin did. There are many species in which the male,
singly or with others, practises antics or sings during the love-season
before the female; and when all such cases, or rather those that are
most striking and bizarre, are brought together, and when it is
gratuitously asserted that the females _do_ choose the males that show
off in the best manner or that sing best, a case for sexual selection
seems to be made out. How unfair the argument is, based on these
carefully selected cases gathered from all regions of the globe, and
often not properly reported, is seen when we turn from the book to
nature and closely consider the habits and actions of all the species
inhabiting any _one_ district. We see then that such cases as those
described and made so much of in the _Descent of Man,_ and cases like
those mentioned in this chapter, are not essentially different in
character, but are manifestations of one instinct, which appears to be
almost universal among the animals. The explanation I have to offer lies
very much on the surface and is very simple indeed, and, like that of
Dr. Wallace with regard [Footnote: It is curious to find that Dr.
Wallace's idea about colour has been independently hit upon by Ruskin.
Of stones he writes in _Frondes Agrestis_:--"I have often had occasion
to allude to the apparent connection of brilliancy of colour with vigour
of life and purity of substance. This is pre-eminently the case in the
mineral kingdom. The perfection with which the particles of any
substance unite in crystallization, corresponds in that kingdom to the
vital power in organic nature."] to colour and ornaments covers the
whole of the facts. We see that the inferior animals, when the
conditions of life are favourable, are subject to periodical fits of
gladness affecting them powerfully and standing out in vivid contrast to
their ordinary temper. And we know what this feeling is--this periodic
intense elation which even civilized man occasionally experiences when
in perfect health, more especially when young. There are moments when
he is mad with joy, when he cannot keep still, when his impulse is to
sing and shout aloud and laugh at nothing, to run and leap and exert
himself in some extravagant way. Among the heavier mammalians the
feeling is manifested in loud noises, bellowings and screamings, and in
lumbering, uncouth motions--throwing up of heels, pretended panics, and
ponderous mock battles.

In smaller and livelier animals, with greater celerity and certitude in
their motions, the feeling shows itself in more regular and often in
more complex ways. Thus, Felidae when young, and, in very agile,
sprightly species like the Puma, throughout life, simulate all the
actions of an animal hunting its prey--sudden, intense excitement of
discovery, concealment, gradual advance, masked by intervening objects,
with intervals of watching, when they crouch motionless, the eyes
flashing and tail waved from side to side; finally, the rush and spring,
when the playfellow is captured, rolled over on his back and worried to
imaginary death. Other species of the most diverse kinds, in which voice
is greatly developed, join in noisy concerts and choruses; many of the
cats may be mentioned, also dogs and foxes, capybaras and other
loquacious rodents; and in the howling monkeys this kind of performance
rises to the sublime uproar of the tropical forest at eventide.

Birds are more subject to this universal joyous instinct than mammals,
and there are times when some species are constantly overflowing with
it; and as they are so much freer than mammals, more buoyant and
graceful in action, more loquacious, and have voices so much finer,
their gladness shows itself in a greater variety of ways, with more
regular and beautiful motions, and with melody. But every species, or
group of species, has its own inherited form or style of performance;
and, however rude and irregular this may be, as in the case of the
pretended stampedes and fights of wild cattle, that is the form in which
the feeling will always be expressed. If all men, at some exceedingly
remote period in their history, had agreed to express the common glad
impulse, which they now express in such an infinite variety of ways or
do not express at all, by dancing a minuet, and minuet-dancing had at
last come to be instinctive, and taken to spontaneously by children at
an early period, just as they take to walking "on their hind legs,"
man's case would be like that of the inferior animals.

I was one day watching a flock of plovers, quietly feeding on the
ground, when, in a moment, all the birds were seized by a joyous
madness, and each one, after making a vigorous peck at his nearest
neighbour, began running wildly about, each trying in passing to peck
other birds, while seeking by means of quick doublings to escape being
pecked in turn. This species always expresses its glad impulse in the
same way; but how different in form is this simple game of
touch-who-touch-can from the triplet dances of the spur-winged lapwings,
with their drumming music, pompous gestures, and military precision of
movement! How different also from the aerial performance of another bird
of the same family--the Brazilian stilt--in which one is pursued by the
others, mounting upwards in a wild, eccentric flight until they are all
but lost to view; and back to earth again, and then, skywards once more;
the pursued bird when overtaken giving place to another individual, and
the pursuing pack making the air ring with their melodious barking
cries! How different again are all these from the aerial pastimes of the
snipe, in which the bird, in its violent descent, is able to produce
such wonderful, far-reaching sounds with its tail-feathers! The snipe,
as a rule, is a solitary bird, and, like the oscillating finch mentioned
early in this paper, is content to practise its pastimes without a
witness. In the gregarious kinds all perform together: for this feeling,
like fear, is eminently contagious, and the sight of one bird mad with
joy will quickly make the whole flock mad. There are also species that
always live in pairs, like the scissors-tails already mentioned, that
periodically assemble in numbers for the purpose of display. The crested
screamer, a very large bird, may also be mentioned: male and female sing
somewhat harmoniously together, with voices of almost unparalleled
power: but these birds also congregate in large numbers, and a thousand
couples, or even several thousands, may be assembled together: and, at
intervals, both by day and night, all sing in concert, their combined
voices producing a thunderous melody which seems to shake the earth. As
a rule, however, birds that live always in pairs do not assemble for the
purpose of display, but the joyous instinct is expressed by duet-like
performances between male and female. Thus, in the three South American
Passerine families, the tyrant-birds, wood-hewers, and ant-thrushes,
numbering together between eight and nine hundred species, a very large
majority appear to have displays of this description.

In my own experience, in cases where the male and female together, or
assembled with others, take equal parts in the set displays, the sexes
arc similar, or differ little; but where the female takes no part in the
displays the superiority of the male in brightness of colour is very
marked. One or two instances bearing on this point may be given.

A scarlet-breasted troupial of La Plata perches conspicuously on a tall
plant in afield, and at intervals soars up vertically, singing, and, at
the highest ascending point, flight and song end in a kind of aerial
somersault and vocal flourish at the same moment. Meanwhile, the
dull-plumaged female is not seen and not heard: for not even a skulking
crake lives in closer seclusion under the herbage--so widely have the
sexes diverged in this species. Is the female, then, without an instinct
so common r--has she no sudden fits of irrepressible gladness?
Doubtless she has them, and manifests them down in her place of
concealment in lively chirpings and quick motions--the simple, primitive
form in which gladness is expressed in the class of birds. In the
various species of the genus Cnipolegus, already mentioned, the
difference in the sexes is just as great as in the case of the troupial:
the solitary, intensely black, statuesque male has, we have seen, a set
and highly fantastic performance; but on more than one occasion I have
seen four or five females of one species meet together and have a little
simple performance all to themselves--in form a kind of lively mock

It might be objected that when a bird takes its stand and repeats a set
finished song at intervals for an hour at a stretch, remaining quietly
perched, such a performance appears to be different in character from
the irregular and simple displays which are unmistakably caused by a
sudden glad impulse. But we are familiar with the truth that in organic
nature great things result from small beginnings--a common flower, and
our own bony skulls, to say nothing of the matter contained within them,
are proofs of it. Only a limited number of species sing in a highly
finished manner. Looking at many species, we find every gradation, every
shade, from the simple joyous chirp and cry to the most perfect melody.
Even in a single branch of the true vocalists we may see it--from the
chirping bunting, and noisy but tuneless sparrow, to linnet and
goldfinch and canary. Not only do a large majority of species show the
singing instinct, or form of display, in a primitive, undeveloped state,
but in that state it continues to show itself in the young of many birds
in which melody is most highly developed in the adult. And where the
development has been solely in the male the female never rises above
that early stage; in her lively chirpings and little mock fights and
chases, and other simple forms which gladness takes in birds, as well as
in her plainer plumage, and absence of ornament, she represents the
species at some remote period. And as with song so with antics and all
set performances aerial or terrestrial, from those of the whale and the
elephant to those of the smallest insect.

Another point remains to be noticed, and that is the greater frequency
and fulness in displays of all kinds, including song, during the love
season. And here Dr. Wallace's colour and ornament theory helps us to an
explanation. At the season of courtship, when the conditions of life are
most favourable vitality is at its maximum, and naturally it is then
that the proficiency in all kinds of dancing-antics, aerial and
terrestrial, appears greatest, and that melody attains its highest
perfection. This applies chiefly to birds, but even among birds there
are exceptions, as we have seen in the case of the field-finch, Sycalis
luteola. The love-excitement is doubtless pleasurable to them, and it
takes the form in which keenly pleasurable emotions are habitually
expressed, although not infrequently with variations due to the greater
intensity of the feeling. In some migrants the males arrive before the
females, and no sooner have they recovered from the effects of their
journey than they burst out into rapturous singing; these are not
love-strains, since the females have not yet arrived, and pairing-time
is perhaps a mouth distant; their singing merely expresses their
overflowing gladness. The forest at that season is vocal, not only with
the fine melody of the true songsters, but with hoarse cawings, piercing
cries, shrill duets, noisy choruses, drummings, boomings, trills,
wood-tappings--every sound with which different species express the glad
impulse; and birds like the parrot that only exert their powerful voices
in screamings--because "they can do no other"--then scream their
loudest. When courtship begins it has in many cases the effect of
increasing the beauty of the performance, giving added sweetness, verve,
and brilliance to the song, and freedom and grace to the gestures and
motions. But, as I have said, there are exceptions. Thus, some birds
that are good melodists at other times sing in a feeble, disjointed
manner during courtship. In Patagonia I found that several of the birds
with good voices--one a mocking bird--were, like the robin at home,
autumn and winter songsters.

The argument has been stated very binefly: but little would be gained by
the mere multiplication of instances, since, however many, they would bo
selected instances--from a single district, it is true, while those in
the _Descent of Man_ were brought together from an immeasurably wider
field; but the principle is the same in both cases, and to what I have
written it may be objected that, if, instead of twenty-five, I had given
a hundred cases, taking them as they came, they might have shown a
larger proportion of instances like that of the cow-bird, in which the
male has a set performance practised only during the love-season and in
the presence of the female.

It is, no doubt, true that all collections of facts relating to animal
life present nature to us somewhat as a "fantastic realm"--unavoidably
so, in a measure, since the writing would be too bulky, or too dry, or
too something inconvenient, if we did not take only the most prominent
facts that come before us, remove them from their places, where alone
they can be seen in their proper relations to numerous other less
prominent facts, and rearrange them patch work-wise to make up our
literature. But I am convinced that any student of the subject who will
cast aside his books--supposing that they have not already bred a habit
in his mind of seeing only "in accordance with verbal statement"--and go
directly to nature to note the actions of animals for himself--actions
which, in many cases, appear to lose all significance when set down in
writing--the result of such independent investigation will be a
conviction that conscious sexual selection on the part of the female is
not the cause of music and dancing performances in birds, nor of the
brighter colours and ornaments that distinguish the male. It is true
that the females of some species, both in the vertebrate and insect
kingdoms, do exercise a preference; but in a vast majority of species
the male takes the female he finds, or that he is able to win from other
competitors; and if we go to the reptile class we find that in the
ophidian order, which excels in variety and richness of colour, there is
no such thing as preferential mating; and if we go to the insect class,
we find that in butterflies, which surpass all creatures in their
glorious beauty, the female gives herself up to the embrace of the first
male that appears, or else is captured by the strongest male, just as
she might be by a mantis or some other rapacious insect.

W. H. Hudson