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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. J. Weir   [4–7] May 18681

6 Haddo Villas | Blackheath SE

May 1868

My Dear Sir

I was at the Zoological Gardens on Saturday, & saw one of the Bronze Winged Pigeons of Australia display itself to the ♀ a sight I have longed to see for years.—

The species was the Ptilophaps cristata, its attitude was most strange, it placed itself before the ♀ almost perpendicularly with the head downwards nearly touching the ground, the tail elevated & spread and the wings half expanded so as to exhibit the iridescent feathers on the coverts all at one view, the bird then very slowly raised & depressed the whole of the body wings & tail in order as it seemed to me to allow the suns rays to play upon the iridescent feathers to the greatest advantage, in fact it appeared to make as much of its metallic feathers as a Pavo would of its tail.—2

The Keeper told me that the shorter tailed “Phaps” made quite as much use of its ornamented wings but that its attitude was quite different.—3

The black bullfinch in my aviary has rubbed the feathers off her beak, in her ceaseless endeavours to injure her ordinary colored rival, caged for security from her attacks.—4

It is instructive even to see the attitudes of so plain a colored bird as the common linnet, the male has these characteristics, white edgings to the primaries & tail & a rosy breast & crown, now when this bird is singing, the primaries droop slightly so as to shew all the white lines, the tail is expanded so as to exhibit the white edgings & the breast is distended so that the red is displayed to the greatest advantage, the attitude of the bird being not unlike a pouter pigeon.—5

There are now in the markets vast numbers of Ruffs, (Machetes), and I am informed by a dealer in Leadenhall that the males are very much more numerous than the females, they have not yet assumed fully the nuptial hackles.—6

The more I observe & reflect the more convinced I am of sexual selection having played a most important part in the colors of birds.—

No doubt the song in plain colored birds, such as Nightingales, Larks, Blackcaps & others, has been perfected by a similar selection, the best singers are the most attractive, it is quite certain that the male Nightingale takes up a station which it occupies until the female is attracted to the spot by its melody.—7

Believe me | My Dear Sir | Yours very sincerely | J Jenner Weir

C Darwin Esqr.

CD annotations

1.1 I was … different.— 3.2] crossed ink
1.1 Bronze … Australia 1.2] underl blue crayon
4.1 The … attacks.— 4.3] crossed blue crayon
5.1 It … bird] crossed pencil
5.1 as the … pigeon.— 5.6] crossed ink
5.2 linnet,] double underl blue crayon
7.1 The … of birds.— 7.2] crossed red crayon
8.1 No doubt … selection, 8.2] crossed blue crayon
8.2 singers … melody.— 8.4] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘N’ blue crayon


The date is established by the fact that this letter must have been written after the letter from J. J. Weir, 28 April – 4 May 1868, and before CD’s reply of 7 May [1868].
The name Ptilophaps cristata has not been found. In Descent 2: 96, CD summarised Weir’s description here, describing the bird as Ocyphaps lophotes (the crested pigeon or crested bronzewing).
See n. 2, above. Phaps histrionica has the shortest tail of the three bronzewings mentioned.
CD cited Weir for this information in Descent 2: 94–5.
The ruff, Machetes pugnax, is now Philomachus pugnax. See also letter from J. J. Weir, 16 March 1868 and n. 6. Leadenhall Market in London included a poultry market (Post Office London directory 1868). The female of the species is called the reeve.
CD cited Weir for his information on the singing of the male nightingale in Descent 2: 52.


Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Post Office London directory: Post-Office annual directory. … A list of the principal merchants, traders of eminence, &c. in the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent … general and special information relating to the Post Office. Post Office London directory. London: His Majesty’s Postmaster-General [and others]. 1802–1967.


Proportion of sexes in ruffs [see Descent 1: 306].

Colour display in linnets, songbirds. Courtship display of Australian pigeon at zoo.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Jenner Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 75–6, DAR 86: C3–4
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6151,” accessed on 16 October 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16