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Darwin Correspondence Project

To E. W. V. Harcourt   12 June [1856]

Down Farnborough Kent

June 12th

Dear Sir

I venture to trouble you once again, in accordance with the very kind permission given in your former note.1 Though I did not then at all anticipate that I shd. so soon have had occasion to take advantage of it.— It is quite likely that you may not be able to give me the desired information & it will depend on your having a collection of skins of Madeira Birds.— Mr. Wollaston insists very strongly on those insects which are common ⁠⟨⁠in⁠⟩⁠ Europe, being generally of ⁠⟨⁠a⁠⟩⁠ smaller size in Madeira2

This point interests me much, & reminds me that the few non-endemic B⁠⟨⁠irds⁠⟩⁠ of the Galapagos Arch. w⁠⟨⁠ere⁠⟩⁠ of a smaller size than the same species elswhere. Have you any reason to think that this is so, even in ⁠⟨⁠a⁠⟩⁠ slight degree, at Madeira⁠⟨⁠?⁠⟩⁠ I have looked to your paper & to an abstract which I made of your Book, but cannot find any remark on this head;3 so that in all probability my question is superfluous, but yet I have thought that you would excuse me making it.—

Secondly, Mr Wollaston quotes on Mr Gould’s authority that certain races of Swallows, which migrate viâ Malta have certainly rather shorter wings, than have the same species which migrate by a longer route.—4 I think it would be an interesting point, if you have the means, carefully to compare the length of wing of the non-migratory swallows of Madeira with the skins of the same species from Europe.—

Lastly I am taking great trouble in collecting skins (& live birds) of all the many domestic varieties of Columba livia from all parts of the world: and I have written to a Mr. Mason, a professional collector now at Madeira to collect skins of the rock Pigeons for me; but I suspect that he is so little of an ornithologist, that he will collect for me perhaps only the other species.5 I see that you mention the C. livia, & a darker variety, as found at Madeira.6 Have you skins of these? & if I fail in getting specimens through Mr. Mason, would you have the great kindness to let me sometime look at your specimens?

I fear that you will repent of your kindness, & think that you have got a very troublesome correspondent. | I beg to remain | Dear Sir | Your obliged servant | Charles Darwin


Harcourt’s reply to CD’s letter of 1 June [1856] (this volume, Supplement) has not been found, but see Correspondence vol. 6, letter from E. W. V. Harcourt, 31 May 1856.
CD had recently read Thomas Vernon Wollaston’s On the variation of species, with especial reference to the Insecta (Wollaston 1856; see Correspondence vol. 6, letter to T. V. Wollaston, 6 June [1856]). Wollaston had discussed at length the effects of isolation on islands (Wollaston 1856, pp. 70–88); he concluded that isolation, after a sufficient period of time, had a direct tendency either to diminish the stature of insect tribes or else to neutralise their power of flight (ibid., pp. 84–5).
Harcourt 1851 and Harcourt 1855. CD’s abstract of Harcourt’s Sketch of Madeira (Harcourt 1851) is in DAR 71: 87–8.
CD’s letter to Nathaniel Haslope Mason, who collected plants on Madeira, has not been found.
See Harcourt 1851, p. 121, and Harcourt 1855, p. 437. Columba livia is the rock pigeon; the darker species was C. trocaz, the Madeira laurel pigeon or long-toed pigeon.


Harcourt, Edward Vernon. 1851. A sketch of Madeira; containing information for the traveller or invalid visitor. London: John Murray.

Harcourt, Edward Vernon. 1855. Notes on the ornithology of Madeira. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2d ser. 15: 430–8.

Wollaston, Thomas Vernon. 1856. On the variation of species with especial reference to the Insecta; followed by an inquiry into the nature of genera. London: John van Voorst.


Would like to compare the length of the wings of non-migratory and migratory swallows.

Wonders if EWVH could show him skins of Columba livia.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Edward William Vernon Harcourt
Sent from
Source of text
Bodleian Libraries, Oxford (MS. Harcourt dep. adds. 346, fols. 252–4)
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1900F,” accessed on 4 October 2023,