Page images

to be washed away by a heavy rain and their young ones destroyed.

Conclusion A fair consideration of all these facts will, I think, fully support the statement with which I commenced, and show that the chief mental faculties exhibited by birds in the construction of their nests are the same in kind as those manifested by mankind in the formation of their dwellings. These are, essentially, imitation, and a slow and partial adaptation to new conditions. To compare the work of birds with the highest manifestations of human art and science is totally beside the question. I do not maintain that birds are gifted with reasoning faculties at all approaching in variety and extent to those of man. I simply hold that the phenomena presented by their mode of building their nests, when fairly compared with those exhibited by the great mass of mankind in building their houses, indicate no essential difference in the kind or nature of the mental faculties employed. If instinct means anything, it means the capacity to perform some complex act without teaching or experience. It implies not only innate ideas but innate knowledge of a very definite kind, and, if established, would overthrow Mr. Mill's sensationalism and all the modern philosophy of experience. That the existence of true instinct may be established in other cases is not impossible; but in the particular instance of birds' nests, which is usually considered one of its strongholds, I cannot find a particle of evidence to show the existence of anything beyond those lower reasoning and imitative powers which animals are universally admitted to possess.



TO THEIR MODE OF NIDIFICATION THE habit of forming a more or less elaborate structure for the reception of their eggs and young must undoubtedly be looked upon as one of the most remarkable and interesting characteristics of the class of birds. In other classes of vertebrate animals, such structures are few and exceptional, and never attain to the same degree of completeness and beauty. Birds' nests have, accordingly, attracted much attention, and have furnished one of the stock arguments to prove the existence of a blind but unerring instinct in the lower animals. The very general belief that every bird is enabled to build its nest, not by the ordinary faculties of observation, memory, and imitation, but by means of some innate and mysterious impulse, has had the bad effect of withdrawing attention from the very evident relation that exists between the structure, habits, and intelligence of birds, and the kind of nests they construct.

In the preceding essay I have detailed several of these relations, and they teach us that a consideration of the structure, the food, and other specialities of a bird's existence will give a clue, and sometimes a very complete one, to the reason why it builds its nest of certain materials, in a definite situation, and in a more or less elaborate manner.

I now propose to consider the question from a more general point of view, and to discuss its application to some important problems in the natural history of birds.

Published in the Journal of Travel and Natural History, No. 2; reprinted in Contributions, etc., with considerable additions and corrections.

Changed Conditions and persistent Habits as influencing

Nidification Besides the causes above alluded to, there are two other factors whose effect in any particular case we can only vaguely guess at, but which must have had an important influence in determining the existing details of nidification. These arechanged conditions of existence, whether internal or external, and the influence of hereditary or imitative habit; the first inducing alterations in accordance with changes of organic structure, of climate, or of the surrounding fauna and flora ; the other preserving the peculiarities so produced, even when changed conditions render them no longer necessary. Many facts have been already given which show that birds do adapt their nests to the situations in which they place them, and the adoption of eaves, chimneys, and boxes by swallows, wrens, and many other birds, shows that they are always ready to take advantage of changed conditions. It is probable, therefore, that a permanent change of climate would cause many birds to modify the form or materials of their abodes, so as better to protect their young. The introduction of new enemies to eggs or young birds might introduce many alterations tending to their better concealment. A change in the vegetation of a country would often necessitate the use of new materials. So, also, we may be sure, that as a species slowly became modified in any external or internal characters, it would necessarily change in some degree its mode of building. This effect would be produced by modifications of the most varied nature ; such as the power and rapidity of flight, which must often determine the distance to which a bird will go to obtain materials for its nest; the capacity of sustaining itself almost motionless in the air, which must sometimes determine the position in which a nest can be built; the strength and grasping power of the foot in relation to the weight of the bird, a power absolutely essential to the constructor of a delicately-woven and well-finished nest; the length and fineness of the beak, which has to be used like a needle in building the best textile nests; the length and mobility of the neck, which is needful for the same purpose; the possession of a salivary secretion like that used in the nests of many of the swifts and swallows, as well as that of the song-thrush — peculiarities of habits which ultimately depend on structure, and which often determine the material most frequently met with or most easily to be obtained. Modifications in any of these characters would necessarily lead either to a change in the materials of the nest, or in the mode of combining them in the finished structure, or in the form or position of that structure.

During all these changes, however, certain specialities of nest-building would continue for a shorter or a longer time after the causes which had necessitated them had passed away. Such records of a vanished past meet us everywhere, even in man's works, notwithstanding his boasted reason. Not only are the main features of Greek architecture mere reproductions in stone of what were originally parts of a wooden building, but our modern copyists of Gothic architecture often build solid buttresses capped with weighty pinnacles to support a wooden roof which has no outward thrust to render them necessary; and even think they ornament their buildings by adding sham spouts of carved stone, while modern waterpipes, stuck on without any attempt at harmony, do the real duty. So, when railways superseded coaches, it was thought necessary to build the first-class carriages to imitate a number of coach-bodies joined together; and the arm-loops for each passenger to hold on by, which were useful when bad roads made every journey a succession of jolts and lurches, were continued on our smooth macadamised mail-routes, and, still more absurdly, remain to this day 1 in our railway carriages, the relic of a kind of locomotion we can now hardly realise. Another good example is to be seen in our boots. When elastic sides came into fashion we had been so long used to fasten them with buttons or laces, that a boot without either looked bare and unfinished, and accordingly the makers often put on a row of useless buttons or imitation laces, because habit rendered the appearance of them necessary to us. It is universally admitted that the habits of children and of savages give us the best clue to the habits and mode of thought of animals; and every one must have observed how children at first imitate the actions of

1 Since this was written they have generally been disused.

their elders, without any regard to the use or applicability of the particular acts. So, in savages, many customs peculiar to each tribe are handed down from father to son merely by the force of habit, and are continued long after the purpose which they originally served has ceased to exist. With these and a hundred similar facts everywhere around us, we may fairly impute much of what we cannot understand in the details of Bird-Architecture to an analogous cause. If we do not do so, we must assume either that birds are guided in every action by pure reason to a far greater extent than men are, or that an infallible instinct leads them to the same result by a different road. The first theory has never, that I am aware of, been maintained by any author, and I have already shown that the second, although constantly assumed, has never been proved, and that a large body of facts is entirely opposed to it. One of my critics has, indeed, maintained that I admit “instinct” under the term “hereditary habit”; but the whole course of my argument shows that I do not do so. Hereditary habit is, indeed, the same as instinct when the term is applied to some simple action dependent upon a peculiarity of structure which is hereditary; as when the descendants of tumbler pigeons tumble, and the descendants of pouter pigeons pout. In the present case, however, I compare it strictly to the hereditary, or more properly, persistent or imitative, habits of savages, in building their houses as their fathers did. Imitation is a lower faculty than invention. Children and savages imitate before they originate ; birds, as well as all other animals, do the same.

The preceding observations are intended to show that the exact mode of nidification of each species of bird is probably the result of a variety of causes, which have been continually inducing changes in accordance with changed organic or physical conditions. The most important of these causes seem to be, in the first place, the structure of the species, and, in the second, its environment or conditions of existence. Now, we know that every one of the characters or conditions included under these two heads is variable. We have seen that, on the large scale, the main features of the nest built by each group of birds bears a relation to the organic structure

well as alla vagos imower factheir

seem to the seco that everyo heads features, he

Chi we know and its envilace, the

« EelmineJätka »