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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Cecil Smith   [1873?]1

Lydeard House | Taunton

Dear Sir

I have been just reading in your “Expression of the Emotions” the description of the Sheldrake dancing as it were & patting on the sand with its feet2   I have not seen the Sheldrake do this myself either tame or wild but I have no doubt it does so. What I want however to call your attention to is a similar habit of the Herring Gull L argentatus3   I have th〈ree of〉 these birds tame   one of them was caught on the river at Teignmouth South Devon where at low water there is a great deal of mud on which the Gulls and other birds feed   now the gull which was caught at Teignmouth is constantly in the habit of patting with his feet in the manner you describe & looking down from time to time to see if the patting has brought up a worm   it seems however a matter of perfect indifference to him whether he performs this feat on the hard gravel wa〈lk or〉 on the soft turf— The other two however which I caught when quite young on the rocks at 〈    〉 never attempt this peculi〈ar ac〉tion

I am quite sure it is the Teignmouth 〈    〉bird that does this as he is about three years younger than the other two & has not yet assumed his full adult plumage   the other two have done so & nested for the last two years   there can therefore be no possible doubt up to this time as to the identity of the birds, the two 〈fro〉m the rocky coast never patting with their feet the one from the muddy tidal river constantly doing so— I can at present carry this no further than I have done but seeing your notice of the Sheldrake I thought the possible difference of habit between the rock inhabiting and the mud inhabiting bird might 〈interest you〉 & be worthy of further 〈    〉

〈I rem〉ain | Yours truly | Cecil Smith


The date is conjectured from the reference to Expression, which was published in November 1872 (Freeman 1977).
In Expression, pp. 47–8, CD described sheldrakes (Tadorna) patting the ground with their feet over worm-casts on beaches in order to make worms rise to the surface. When practised by tame sheldrakes to indicate their desire to be fed, this ‘dancing’ became, in CD’s view, an instance of ‘an habitual and purposeless movement’.
Larus argentatus, the European herring gull.


Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Freeman, Richard Broke. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d edition. Folkestone, Kent: William Dawson & Sons. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, Shoe String Press.


Describes some behaviour in herring gulls similar to that of sheldrakes as described by CD in Expression [pp. 47–8].

Letter details

Letter no.
Cecil Smith
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 187
Physical description
3pp damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13841,” accessed on 19 September 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21