Page images
PDF
EPUB

the families of the vast order of Passeres to which the latter belong. The eggs of both swifts and hummingbirds are white, only two in number, and resembling each other in texture. And in the arrangement of the feather-tracts the humming-birds approach more nearly to the swifts than they do to any other birds; and altogether differ from the sun-birds, which, in this respect as in so many others, resemble the honey-suckers of Australia and other true passerine birds. Resemblances of Swifts and Humming-birds–Having this clue to their affinities, we shall find other peculiarities common to these two groups, the swifts and the humming-birds. They have both ten tail-feathers, while the sun-birds have twelve. They have both only sixteen true quill-feathers, and they are the only birds which have so small a number. The humming-birds are remarkable for having, in almost all the species, the first quill the longest of all, the only other birds resembling them in this respect being a few species of swifts; and, lastly, in both groups the plumage is remarkably compact and closely pressed to the body. Yet, with all these points of agreement, we find an extreme diversity in the bills and tongues of the two groups. The swifts have a short, broad, flat bill, with a flat horny-tipped tongue of the usual character; while the humming-birds have a very long, narrow, almost cylindrical bill, containing a tubular and highly extensible tongue. The essential point however is, that whereas hardly any of the other characters we have adduced are adaptive, or strictly correlated with habits and economy, this character is pre-eminently so; for the Swifts are pure aérial insect-hunters, and their short,

[ocr errors]

broad bills, and wide gape, are essential to their mode of life. The humming-birds, on the other hand, are floral insect-hunters, and for this purpose their peculiarly long bills and extensile tongues are especially adapted ; while they are at the same time honey-suckers, and for this purpose have acquired the tubular tongue. The formation of such a tubular tongue out of one of the ordinary kind is easily conceivable, as it only requires to be lengthened, and the two laminae of which it is composed curled in at the sides; and these changes it probably goes through in the young birds. When on the Amazon I once had a nest brought me containing two little unfledged humming-birds, apparently not long hatched. Their beaks were not at all like those of their parents, but short, triangular, and broad at the base; just the form of the beak of a swallow or swift slightly lengthened. Thinking (erroneously) that the young birds were fed by their parents on honey, I tried to feed them with a syrup made of honey and water, but though they kept their mouths constantly open as if ravenously hungry, they would not swallow the liquid, but threw it out again and sometimes nearly choked themselves in the effort. At length I caught some minute flies, and on dropping one of these into the open mouth it instantly closed, the fly was gulped down and the mouth opened again for more; and each took in this way fifteen or twenty little flies in succession before it was satisfied. They lived thus three or four days, but required more constant care than I could give them, These little birds were in the “swift” stage ; they were pure insect-eaters, with a bill and mouth adapted for insect-eating only. At that time I was not aware of the importance of the observation of the tongue; but as the bill was so short and the tubular tongue not required, there can be little doubt that the organ was, at that early stage of growth, short and flat, as it is in the birds most nearly allied to them. Differences between Sun-birds and Humming-birds. —In respect of all the essential and deep-seated points of structure, which have been shown to offer such remarkable similarities between the swifts and the humming-birds, the sun-birds of the Eastern hemisphere differ totally from the latter, while they agree with the passerine birds generally, or more particularly with the creepers and honey-suckers. They have a deeply-notched sternum; they have twelve tail-feathers in place of ten ; they have nineteen quills in place of sixteen; and the first quill instead of being the longest is the very shortest of all, while the wings are short and round, instead of being excessively long and pointed; their plumage is arranged differently; and their feet are long and strong, instead of being excessively short and weak. There remain only the superficial characters of small size and brilliant metallic colours to assimilate them with the humming-birds, and one structural feature—a tubular and somewhat extensile tongue. This, however, is a strictly adaptive character, the sun-birds feeding on small insects and the nectar of flowers, just as do the humming-birds; and it is a remarkable instance of a highly peculiar modification of an organ occurring independently in two widely-separate groups. In the sun-birds the hyoid or tongue-muscles do not extend so completely over the head as they do in the humming-birds, so that the tongue is less extensible; but it is constructed in exactly the same way by the inrolling of the two laminae of which it is composed.

The tubular tongue of the sun-birds is a special adaptive modification acquired within the family itself, and not inherited from a remote ancestral form. This is shown by the amount of variation this organ exhibits in different members of the family. It is most highly developed in the Arachnotherae, or spiderhunters, of Asia, which are sun-birds without any metallic or other brilliant colouring. These have the longest bills and tongues, and the most developed hyoid muscles; they hunt much about the blossoms of palmtrees, and may frequently be seen probing the flowers while fluttering clumsily in the air, just as if they had seen and attempted to imitate the aërial gambols of the American humming-birds. The true metallic sunbirds generally cling about the flowers with their strong feet; and they feed chiefly on minute hard insects, as do many humming-birds. There is, however, one species (Chalcoparia phoenicotis) always classed as a sun-bird, which differs entirely from the rest of the species in having the tongue flat, horny, and forked at the tip ; and its food seems to differ correspondingly, for small caterpillars were found in its stomach. More remotely allied, but yet belonging to the same family, are the little flower-peckers of the genus Diceum, which have a short bill and a tongue twice split at the end; and these feed on small fruits, and perhaps on buds and on the pollen of flowers. The little white-eyes (Zosterops), which are probably allied to the last, eat soft fruits and minute insects.

Here then we have an extensive group of birds, considerably varied in external form, yet undoubtedly closely allied to each other, one division of which is specially adapted to feed on the juices secreted by flowers and the minute insects that harbour in them ; and these alone have a lengthened bill and double tubular tongue, just as in the humming-birds. We can hardly have a more striking example of the necessity of discriminating between adaptive and purely structural characters. The same adaptive character may coexist in two groups which have a similar mode of life, without indicating any affinity between them, because it may have been acquired by each independently, to enable it to fill a similar place in nature. In such cases it is found to be an almost isolated character, apparently connecting two groups which otherwise differ radically. Non-adaptive, or purely structural characters, on the other hand, are such as have probably been transmitted from a remote ancestor; and thus indicate fundamental peculiarities of growth and development. The changes of structure rendered necessary by modifications of the habits or instincts of the different species, have been made, to a great extent, independently of such characters; and as several of these may always be found in the same animal their value becomes cumulative. We thus arrive at the seeming paradox, that the less of direct use is apparent in any peculiarity of structure, the greater is its value in indicating true, though perhaps remote, affinities; while any peculiarity of an organ which seems essential to its possessor's well-being is often of very little value in indicating its affinity for other creatures.

« EelmineJätka »