By: Tracy Novinger, Travis Audubon Master Birder
Imagine traveling in a foreign country. Maybe you sit on the outside terrace of a café bordering a park to enjoy your first coffee of the morning. Movement catches your eye when a bird lands in the small tree next to you. What if that bird, about the size of an Inca Dove, were an intense, bright purple with a rakish black mask and a showy crest? You would probably gasp with pleasure at its brilliant color as it began to sing notes of cheer welcoming beautiful Spring weather. I tell myself that this is what our dazzling red cardinal must have looked like to our cousin, Michèle, an engineer who recently came from France to spend time with us in Austin. In France there are no Cardinals.*
When my husband and I would sit on our back porch with Michèle, a male Cardinal saturated in red would usually perch nearby, calling its descending notes of cheer, cheer, cheer. Then it would fly to our feeder to gobble up black sunflower seeds. Michèle took a multitude of photos.
Recently, I came to understand how the male Cardinal evolved into such a bright, handsome fellow. I read “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us” by Richard O. Prum. I did not realize when I ordered Prum’s book that it focused on birds. How propitious for me. In order to understand the evolution of beauty, Prum studied mate choice in Manakins. To mate, the female Manakin chooses the male with the most beautiful plumage, song and courting displays. A male may be robust and fit, but if it not beautiful to a female of its species, it may go its entire life without mating. No female in the lek will have him, poor fellow. As a result, it is the female Manakin’s standard of beauty that drives how the males’ plumage and courting behavior evolve. What I find most surprising is that the female Manakin seems to have an abstract standard of beauty that is unrelated to the concept of “survival of the fittest” in an animal species.
Michèle left Austin as an engineer hooked on birds.