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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Edward Hewitt   18 December 1857

Eden Cottage, Spark Brook, | nr. Birmm.

Decr. 18/57.

My dear Sir.

I am really sorry your very courteous letter has been so long without reply, but an unusually severe personal illness, from family bereavement, was the only cause.1 Thank God, I am now better!

As to Hybrids, the product of intermixture between the different varieties of Pheasants and domestic fowls, for years, and years, I admit it was alike my “hobby” and “my folly”. At one time I had 12 pairs of birds thus mated in my own possession, including attempts to cross the common English Pheasant, with the Chinese Silver Pencilled;—the English with the Chinese Golden, and also each variety of these Pheasants, with the Common Fowl. I obtained product from each “cross” in the Pheasants, inter se, but could never get even one solitary chick from either variety of Chinese Pheasants and a fowl, though frequently in the case of the English bird. This appeared to me very remarkable at the time, as copulation was quite as frequent in the one case as the other. 2

In all these trials I admit the male bird was the Pheasant, were I to “try again”, I should reverse the sexes also;—(why?) this year a friend of mine had a common English Pheasant, the survivor of a pair reared tamely, the cock having been lost by a mischance. The owner begged the loan of a cock Silver Sebright Bantam—a beautiful bird, but a notoriously bad breeder with his own hens —yet strange to say, they reared an Hybrid from him, and the hen Pheasant.

What is most curious, this offspring has both wattles and a rosey -comb!!—not the slightest vestige of which, did I ever see before in any Hybrid. The formation of the nostrils is (as always hitherto the case,) similar to the mother-pheasant’s, but to prove how strangely Nature confutes us, if we force her from her accustomed habits, this bird is not even so large as the Sebright. The plumage will be eventually quite as beautiful as eccentric, closely approximating that of a Chinese Silver cock Pheasant, but the ground (particularly on the scapular feathers,) will show a clear (tho’ slight) guilding.

The above is decidedly the only instance I ever knew of a male fowl, breeding with a hen Pheasant, of any variety whatever. I purpose (if all goes on smoothly,) to write full particulars of this “curiosity,” for the general benefit of poultry friends, after its adult plumage is fully complete.

Hybrids are commonly very difficult “to tell” (as to the sex,) until pretty well adult, but commonly, the superiority of size, where several are in rearing from the same nest, will be conclusive; I myself do not know any other test, whilst yet immature.

In reply to your remaining query, I have opened hundreds of eggs, containing the partially formed embryo of a Hybrid.3

I once possessed a cock (english) pheasant, “netted” at “barley-time”, that became quite tame, and almost every egg laid to him was fructified, yet only very few hatched comparatively. judging from appearances, they had progressed to the sixth or seventh day of incubation, but in only one instance, every egg (of eleven) hatched, although the foster-mother (a Game Hen) actually eat up in toto one of her chicks, (that showed a slight disposition to hemorrhage) even before it was well out of the shell; yet with that fatality peculiar (I do believe) to all “pets”, not one of the ten remaining ones came to maturity;—rats, cats, and (at last) some timber “blowing down”, all lending a helping hand.

In all instances within my own knowledge of Hybrids, for the male Pht. and common Hen fowl (of any variety) the produce has been immensely in advance as to size, of either parent; it is therefore worth reflection, that (as before narrated) the sexes opposed of the parents, a pigmy is the order of the day. There must be some occult cause for this, however indescribable, and such a result, I for one, was not in anyway prepared for. Again there appears no obvious reason, why a Chinese Pht., should not breed with a fowl, when our common one will; they copulate, yet not one egg fructifies. It proves a limit is placed to our caprices, for they will very rarely breed a “cross” (if ever) at liberty.4 however carefully devised, in the animal world, otherwise most probably it would be pre-occupied by monsters, to the ruin and exclusion, of all others.

I am indeed, on reperusal, afraid you will think my letter tedious and far too prolix, it is also anything but carefully indited, still it expresses my convictions, and with every good wish, it is freely rendered.

I am, My dear Sir, | Yours very faithfully, | Edward Hewitt.

CD annotations

crossed pencil
scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
4.1 What … comb!!] scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
scored brown crayon
7.1 In reply … eggs,] double scored brown crayon

Footnotes

Hewitt had suffered the sudden death of his only sister in February 1857, leaving him with an invalid mother to care for (Cottage Gardener 17 (1856–7): 384–6). CD probably wrote to Hewitt soon after learning from William Bernhard Tegetmeier that Hewitt had made a number of crosses between pheasants and fowl (see letter to W. B. Tegetmeier, 6 February [1857]). Tegetmeier drew upon Hewitt’s experiences in the relevant section of his Poultry book (Tegetmeier ed. 1856–7, pp. 165–7).
CD reported this information in Natural selection, p. 435 n. 8.
CD cited Hewitt on this point in Natural selection, p. 422.
The passage ‘for they … liberty.’ was added at the bottom of the letter with a cross to indicate its position in the main text.

Bibliography

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Summary

Hybrid varieties of pheasant and common fowl. Reply to CD queries.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-1614
From
Edward Hewitt
To
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Sparkbrook
Source of text
DAR 166: 196
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1614,” accessed on 5 December 2019, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-1614.xml

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6

letter