Chapter VIII. Instinct
Special instincts; Instincts of the cuckoo
 

We shall, perhaps, best understand how instincts in a state of nature have become modified by selection by considering a few cases. I will select only three, namely, the instinct which leads the cuckoo to lay her eggs in other birds' nests; the slave-making instinct of certain ants; and the cell-making power of the hive-bee: these two latter instincts have generally and justly been ranked by naturalists as the most wonderful of all known instincts.

Instincts of the Cuckoo.

It is supposed by some naturalists that the more immediate cause of the instinct of the cuckoo is that she lays her eggs, not daily, but at intervals of two or three days; so that, if she were to make her own nest and sit on her own eggs, those first laid would have to be left for some time unincubated or there would be eggs and young birds of different ages in the same nest. If this were the case the process of laying and hatching might be inconveniently long, more especially as she migrates at a very early period; and the first hatched young would probably have to be fed by the male alone. But the American cuckoo is in this predicament, for she makes her own nest and has eggs and young successively hatched, all at the same time. It has been both asserted and denied that the American cuckoo occasionally lays her eggs in other birds' nests; but I have lately heard from Dr. Merrill, of Iowa, that he once found in Illinois a young cuckoo, together with a young jay in the nest of a blue jay (Garrulus cristatus); and as both were nearly full feathered, there could be no mistake in their identification. I could also give several instances of various birds which have been known occasionally to lay their eggs in other birds' nests. Now let us suppose that the ancient progenitor of our European cuckoo had the habits of the American cuckoo, and that she occasionally laid an egg in another bird's nest. If the old bird profited by this occasional habit through being enabled to emigrate earlier or through any other cause; or if the young were made more vigorous by advantage being taken of the mistaken instinct of another species than when reared by their own mother, encumbered as she could hardly fail to be by having eggs and young of different ages at the same time, then the old birds or the fostered young would gain an advantage. And analogy would lead us to believe that the young thus reared would be apt to follow by inheritance the occasional and aberrant habit of their mother, and in their turn would be apt to lay their eggs in other birds' nests, and thus be more successful in rearing their young. By a continued process of this nature, I believe that the strange instinct of our cuckoo has been generated. It has, also recently been ascertained on sufficient evidence, by Adolf Muller, that the cuckoo occasionally lays her eggs on the bare ground, sits on them and feeds her young. This rare event is probably a case of reversion to the long-lost, aboriginal instinct of nidification.

It has been objected that I have not noticed other related instincts and adaptations of structure in the cuckoo, which are spoken of as necessarily co-ordinated. But in all cases, speculation on an instinct known to us only in a single species, is useless, for we have hitherto had no facts to guide us. Until recently the instincts of the European and of the non- parasitic American cuckoo alone were known; now, owing to Mr. Ramsay's observations, we have learned something about three Australian species, which lay their eggs in other birds' nests. The chief points to be referred to are three: first, that the common cuckoo, with rare exceptions, lays only one egg in a nest, so that the large and voracious young bird receives ample food. Secondly, that the eggs are remarkably small, not exceeding those of the skylark--a bird about one-fourth as large as the cuckoo. That the small size of the egg is a real case of adaptation we may infer from the fact of the mon-parasitic American cuckoo laying full-sized eggs. Thirdly, that the young cuckoo, soon after birth, has the instinct, the strength and a properly shaped back for ejecting its foster- brothers, which then perish from cold and hunger. This has been boldly called a beneficent arrangement, in order that the young cuckoo may get sufficient food, and that its foster-brothers may perish before they had acquired much feeling!

Turning now to the Australian species: though these birds generally lay only one egg in a nest, it is not rare to find two and even three eggs in the same nest. In the bronze cuckoo the eggs vary greatly in size, from eight to ten lines in length. Now, if it had been of an advantage to this species to have laid eggs even smaller than those now laid, so as to have deceived certain foster-parents, or, as is more probable, to have been hatched within a shorter period (for it is asserted that there is a relation between the size of eggs and the period of their incubation), then there is no difficulty in believing that a race or species might have been formed which would have laid smaller and smaller eggs; for these would have been more safely hatched and reared. Mr. Ramsay remarks that two of the Australian cuckoos, when they lay their eggs in an open nest, manifest a decided preference for nests containing eggs similar in colour to their own. The European species apparently manifests some tendency towards a similar instinct, but not rarely departs from it, as is shown by her laying her dull and pale-coloured eggs in the nest of the hedge-warbler with bright greenish-blue eggs. Had our cuckoo invariably displayed the above instinct, it would assuredly have been added to those which it is assumed must all have been acquired together. The eggs of the Australian bronze cuckoo vary, according to Mr. Ramsay, to an extraordinary degree in colour; so that in this respect, as well as in size, natural selection might have secured and fixed any advantageous variation.

In the case of the European cuckoo, the offspring of the foster-parents are commonly ejected from the nest within three days after the cuckoo is hatched; and as the latter at this age is in a most helpless condition, Mr. Gould was formerly inclined to believe that the act of ejection was performed by the foster-parents themselves. But he has now received a trustworthy account of a young cuckoo which was actually seen, while still blind and not able even to hold up its own head, in the act of ejecting its foster-brothers. One of these was replaced in the nest by the observer, and was again thrown out. With respect to the means by which this strange and odious instinct was acquired, if it were of great importance for the young cuckoo, as is probably the case, to receive as much food as possible soon after birth, I can see no special difficulty in its having gradually acquired, during successive generations, the blind desire, the strength, and structure necessary for the work of ejection; for those cuckoos which had such habits and structure best developed would be the most securely reared. The first step towards the acquisition of the proper instinct might have been mere unintentional restlessness on the part of the young bird, when somewhat advanced in age and strength; the habit having been afterwards improved, and transmitted to an earlier age. I can see no more difficulty in this than in the unhatched young of other birds acquiring the instinct to break through their own shells; or than in young snakes acquiring in their upper jaws, as Owen has remarked, a transitory sharp tooth for cutting through the tough egg-shell. For if each part is liable to individual variations at all ages, and the variations tend to be inherited at a corresponding or earlier age--propositions which cannot be disputed--then the instincts and structure of the young could be slowly modified as surely as those of the adult; and both cases must stand or fall together with the whole theory of natural selection.

Some species of Molothrus, a widely distinct genus of American birds, allied to our starlings, have parasitic habits like those of the cuckoo; and the species present an interesting gradation in the perfection of their instincts. The sexes of Molothrus badius are stated by an excellent observer, Mr. Hudson, sometimes to live promiscuously together in flocks, and sometimes to pair. They either build a nest of their own or seize on one belonging to some other bird, occasionally throwing out the nestlings of the stranger. They either lay their eggs in the nest thus appropriated, or oddly enough build one for themselves on the top of it. They usually sit on their own eggs and rear their own young; but Mr. Hudson says it is probable that they are occasionally parasitic, for he has seen the young of this species following old birds of a distinct kind and clamouring to be fed by them. The parasitic habits of another species of Molothrus, the M. bonariensis, are much more highly developed than those of the last, but are still far from perfect. This bird, as far as it is known, invariably lays its eggs in the nests of strangers; but it is remarkable that several together sometimes commence to build an irregular untidy nest of their own, placed in singular ill-adapted situations, as on the leaves of a large thistle. They never, however, as far as Mr. Hudson has ascertained, complete a nest for themselves. They often lay so many eggs--from fifteen to twenty--in the same foster-nest, that few or none can possibly be hatched. They have, moreover, the extraordinary habit of pecking holes in the eggs, whether of their own species or of their foster parents, which they find in the appropriated nests. They drop also many eggs on the bare ground, which are thus wasted. A third species, the M. pecoris of North America, has acquired instincts as perfect as those of the cuckoo, for it never lays more than one egg in a foster-nest, so that the young bird is securely reared. Mr. Hudson is a strong disbeliever in evolution, but he appears to have been so much struck by the imperfect instincts of the Molothrus bonariensis that he quotes my words, and asks, "Must we consider these habits, not as especially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, namely, transition?"

Various birds, as has already been remarked, occasionally lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. This habit is not very uncommon with the Gallinaceae, and throws some light on the singular instinct of the ostrich. In this family several hen birds unite and lay first a few eggs in one nest and then in another; and these are hatched by the males. This instinct may probably be accounted for by the fact of the hens laying a large number of eggs, but, as with the cuckoo, at intervals of two or three days. The instinct, however, of the American ostrich, as in the case of the Molothrus bonariensis, has not as yet been perfected; for a surprising number of eggs lie strewed over the plains, so that in one day's hunting I picked up no less than twenty lost and wasted eggs.

Many bees are parasitic, and regularly lay their eggs in the nests of other kinds of bees. This case is more remarkable than that of the cuckoo; for these bees have not only had their instincts but their structure modified in accordance with their parasitic habits; for they do not possess the pollen-collecting apparatus which would have been indispensable if they had stored up food for their own young. Some species of Sphegidae (wasp-like insects) are likewise parasitic; and M. Fabre has lately shown good reason for believing that, although the Tachytes nigra generally makes its own burrow and stores it with paralysed prey for its own larvae, yet that, when this insect finds a burrow already made and stored by another sphex, it takes advantage of the prize, and becomes for the occasion parasitic. In this case, as with that of the Molothrus or cuckoo, I can see no difficulty in natural selection making an occasional habit permanent, if of advantage to the species, and if the insect whose nest and stored food are feloniously appropriated, be not thus exterminated.