BIRDS AS AUTOMATA
THE sudden change that comes over the nature of most birds at the nesting season is, perhaps, the most wonderful phenomenon in nature. Active, restless birds, which normally spend the whole day on the wing, are content to sit motionless in a cramped position upon the nest for hours together. Birds of prey, whose nature it is to devour every helpless creature that comes within their grasp, behave most tenderly towards their young, actually disgorging swallowed food in order to provide them with a meal. Timid birds become bold. Those which under ordinary circumstances will not permit a human being to approach near them, will sometimes, while brooding, actually allow themselves to be lifted off the nest.
At the breeding season intelligence, which counsels self-preservation, gives way before the parental instinct, which causes birds to expose themselves to danger, and, in some cases, even to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their offspring.
From the construction of the nest until the time when the young ones are fledged the actions of the parent birds are, at any rate in the neighbourhood of the nest, those of automata, rather than of creatures endowed with intelligence.
On this hypothesis alone are many of the actions of nesting birds comprehensible.
That the construction of the nest is in the main an instinctive habit and not the result of intelligence is proved by the fact that a bird which has been hatched out in an incubator will, at the appointed season, build a nest. If birds were not guided by instinct they would never take the trouble to do such a quixotic thing. What benefit can they derive from laboriously collecting a number of twigs and weaving them into a nest ?
It is, of course, natural selection that has originated this instinct; for those species in which the parental instinct is not developed, or in which there is not some substitute for it, must inevitably perish. When once this instinct has taken root natural selection will tend to perpetuate it, since those species which take the best care of their young are those which are likely to survive in the struggle for existence.
Many instances can be adduced to show how automatic are the actions of birds at the nesting season.
It sometimes happens that a bird lays an egg and then proceeds to build a nest on top of it.
Again, some birds do not know their own eggs. A whole clutch of different ones may be substituted for those upon which the bird is sitting and the bird will not discover the change.
The well-known bird-photographer, Mr. R. Kearton, was desirous of obtaining a good photograph of a sitting thrush, and as he was afraid that her eggs would be hatched before a fine, sunny day presented itself, had some wooden dummies made. These he painted and varnished to look like those of the thrush, and put them in the nest, wondering whether the bird would be deceived. He need not have wondered; she would probably have sat upon the shams even had they not been coloured.
Upon another occasion Mr. Kearton replaced some starling nestlings by his wooden eggs, and waited to see what would happen. " In a few minutes," he writes, "back came the starling with a rush. She gazed in wonder at the contents of the nest for a few seconds, but, quickly making up her mind to accept the strangely altered condition of things, she sat down on the bits of painted wood without a trace of discontent in either look or action. Putting her off again, I reversed the order of things and waited. Upon returning, the starling stared in amazement at the change that had come over the scene during her absence; but her curiosity soon vanished, and she commenced to brood her chicks in the most matter-of-fact way." Then Mr. Kearton took out the chicks and put his fist into the nest, so that the back of his hand was uppermost. The starling actually brooded his knuckles. We must, of course, remember that a starling's nest is in a hole, where there is but little light. But, provided the starling could not see him, I believe that she would have brooded his knuckles in broad daylight.
Crows, the most intelligent of birds, will sit upon and try to hatch golf balls and ping-pong balls. One famous kite in Calcutta sat long and patiently in a vain attempt to make a pill-box yield a chick, while another member of this species subjected a hare's skull to similar treatment Upon one occasion I took a robin's egg that was quite cold and placed it among the warm ones in a blackbird's nest. The hen came and brooded the egg along with her own without appearing to notice the addition, although it was much smaller than her eggs and of a totally different colour.
In the same way, if a set of nestlings of another species be substituted for those already in the nest, the parent birds will usually feed the new family without noticing the change. Instinct teaches a bird to brood all inanimate objects it sees in the nest and to feed all living things, whether they be its own offspring or not, and many birds blindly obey this instinct. It is, of course, to the advantage of the species that this should be so. For it is only on very rare occasions that foreign objects get into a nest, and nature cannot provide for such remote contingencies.
Similarly, instinct will not allow a bird to pay any attention to objects outside the nest, even though these objects be the bird's own offspring.
As everybody knows, the common cuckoo nestling ejects its foster-brethren from the nest, and if the true parents were able to appreciate what had happened, how much sorrow among its victims would the cuckoo cause! As a matter of fact, no sorrow at all is caused. Incredible as it may seem, the parent birds do not miss the young ones, nor do they appear to see them as they lie outside the nest. In this connection I cannot do better than quote Mr. W. H. Hudson, who was able to closely observe what happened when a young cuckoo had turned a baby robin out of the nest. " Here," writes Hudson, "the young robin when ejected fell a distance of but five or six inches, and rested on a broad, light green leaf, where it was an exceedingly conspicuous object; and when the mother robin was on the nest -: and at that stage she was on it the greater part of the time -: warming that black-skinned, toadlike, spurious babe of hers, her bright, intelligent eyes were looking full at. the other one, just beneath her, which she had grown in her body and had hatched with her warmth, and was her very own. I watched her for hours ; watched her when warming the cuckoo, when she left the nest, and when she returned with food and warmed it again, and never once did she pay the least attention to the outcast lying there close to her. There on its green leaf it remained, growing colder by degrees, hour by hour, motionless, except when it lifted its head as if to receive food, then dropped it again, and when at intervals it twitched its body as if trying to move. During the evening even these slight motions ceased, though the feeblest flame of life was not yet extinct; but in the morning it was dead and cold and stiff; and just above it, her bright eyes upon it, the mother robin sat on the nest as before warming the cuckoo."
Even those actions of nesting birds which appear to be most intelligent can be shown to be merely automatic. Take, for example, the curious habit of feigning injury, which some birds have, when an enemy approaches the young, in order to distract attention from them to itself and thus enable them to seek cover unobserved. This surely seems a highly intelligent act. But birds sometimes act thus before the eggs are hatched, and by so doing actually attract attention to the eggs. This action is purely instinctive, and is perpetuated and strengthened by natural selection because it is beneficial to the race.
We have seen how at the nesting season all a bird's normal actions and instincts are subordinated to those of incubation. It is therefore but reasonable to suppose the incubating bird to be in a very peculiar and excitable state, a state bordering on insanity.
A bird in this condition might be expected to go into something resembling convulsions on the approach of an enemy, and, provided its acts under such circumstances tended to help the offspring to escape, and were at the same time not sufficiently acute to cause the mother bird to fall a victim to the enemy, natural selection would tend to perpetuate and fix such actions.
Want of space prevents further dilation upon this fascinating subject.
To sum up the conclusions I desire to emphasise. A bird has during the greater part of its life only to look after itself, and the more intelligent it be the better will it do this, hence natural selection tends to increase the intelligence of birds. But, at certain seasons, it becomes all-important to the species that the adults should attend to their young, even at risk to themselves. To secure this Nature has placed inside birds a force, dormant at most times, which at periodic intervals completely over¬rides all normal instincts, a force which compels parent birds to rivet their attention on the nest and its contents. Thus the sudden conversion of birds into automata is a necessity, not a mere whim of Dame Nature. The instinct is not of very long duration ; for as soon as the young are able to fend for themselves, the parents sometimes behave in what seems to human beings a most unnatural way: they drive off their offspring by force. As a matter of fact, this behaviour is quite natural; it is dictated by Nature for the benefit of the species. Strong as the maternal instinct is, it is liable to be overridden by stronger instincts, such as that of migration. When the time for the migratory journey comes round, the parent birds will desert, without apparently a pang of remorse, or even a thought, the broods for whose welfare they have been slaving day and night. This desertion of later broods by migratory birds is far commoner than is generally supposed. In 1826 Mr. Blackwell inspected the house-martins' nests under the eaves of a barn at Blakely after the autumnal migration of these birds. Of the twenty-two nests under the eaves inspected on nth November, no fewer than thirteen were found to contain eggs and dead nestlings.