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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Samuel Birch   6 April [1861]

Down Bromley Kent

April 6th

My dear Sir

You formerly gave me some valuable extracts about Poultry from Chinese Encyclops.—1 I shd. be so much obliged if you could answer me 4 questions on enclosed paper. You might affix “yes” or “no” & “date” & return the paper, without troubling yourself to write. I enclose your old memorandums, as they will recall the Books in question.

Pray forgive me being so troublesome & believe me | My dear Sir | Yours sincerely obliged | Ch. Darwin

I enclose directed envelope so as to give as little trouble as possible.


What is probable age of the Japanese Encyclop? (marked with single red line)2

Am I right in believing that the Santsae or Chinese “Encyclop. of Three Principles”, was compiled from other ancient works? I think you told me so.— Is this the case also with the Puntsaon?3

You give in note (marked with 2 red lines) an extract about Fowls with black feathers & bones. Is anything said about the feathers being hairy. I wish much to know, as I have extraordinary case of reversion in this breed.—4

Pickering in his Races of Man p. 374 speaks of a Head & neck of Fowl in a tribute-procession to Thouthmosis III. Can you tell me date of this King?5


In 1856, CD had asked Birch, then assistant keeper in the department of antiquities of the British Museum, whether he knew of any Chinese works that contained references to the varieties of domesticated animals and cultivated plants kept by the Chinese (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter to J. E. Gray, 14 January [1856]). Birch subsequently provided CD with translated extracts from such works (see ibid., vol. 7, Supplement, letter to Samuel Birch, 8 April [1856]).
Apparently Birch was unable to provide a firm date for the work. In Variation, CD mentioned references to dwarf fowl in an ancient Japanese encyclopaedia that Birch had located (Variation 1: 230 n. 5 and 247).
In Variation, CD gave information on breeds of fowl taken from two ancient Chinese texts translated for him by Birch: ‘a Chinese Encyclopædia published in 1609, but compiled from more ancient documents’ and ‘the Chinese Encyclopædia published in 1596, but compiled from various sources, some of high antiquity’ (ibid., 238, 247). The texts to which he refers are the San ts’ai t’u hui (1609), compiled by Wang Ch’i, which included sections on birds and beasts and plants and trees; and the famous pharmacopia Pen ts’ao kang mu (1593) of Li Shih-chen (Cambridge history of China 7: 774–7).
CD probably refers to an ‘extraordinary’ case of reversion he had noticed in the progeny of a cross between a white silk hen and a black Spanish cock. The offspring were all black with ‘blackish combs and bones’; as they grew, however, they developed characteristics resembling the wild Gallus bankiva, even though both breeds were thought to be ancient and were known to breed true. See Variation 1: 241–2.
In Variation 1: 246 n. 33, CD wrote: Dr. Pickering, in his ‘Races of Man,’ p. 374, says that the head and neck of a fowl is carried in a Tribute-procession to Thoutmousis III. (1445 B.C.); but Mr. Birch of the British Museum doubts whether the figure can be identified as the head of a fowl. The reference is to Pickering 1850.


Requests information about Japanese and Chinese encyclopedias,

about the rarity of fowls with black feathers,

and about date of the king Thouthmosis III.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Samuel Birch
Sent from
Source of text
British Museum (Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities), Correspondence 1826–67: 1493
Physical description
1p encl 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3113A,” accessed on 22 June 2018,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9