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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Richard Hill   12 March 1857

Spanish Town Jamaica

12th March 1857.

My dear Sir,

I am unwilling to let the packet depart without acknowledging the receipt of your letter.1

I am fearful I cannot promise you any thing more precise respecting Ducks being instrumental in the dispersion of Crustacea through Mountain streams, except common report. One can scarcely conceive the ova resisting the grinding and crushing of so powerful an instrument as a Duck’s gizzard. However I will attend to all precise facts on the subject and communicate them to you.

With regard to instances in which Hurricanes have brought us Continental birds, not known to us as visitors ordinarily, I can mention the acquisition of a specimen of the Anas maxima, in the year 1848. I must first direct your attention to the bird described under the name of the Green-backed Mallard in Gosse’s Birds of Jamaica at page 399.2 He assigns it the name of Anas maxima, and on the suspicion of Mr Gray,3 sets it down as a possible hybrid, between Anas boschas and Cairina moschata— He tells you where and when it came to his hand, and the prevalent knowledge of it as a distinct species. It is a rare visitor. In the October of 1848 we were smitten by a Hurricane, which spun its rotary course with such violence in the gulf of Mexico, that the impeded waters of the gulf stream, created a prodigious tidal rise about us, if I may so speak, and submerged the Islands of the Caymanas— The inhabitants of those Solitary Islets were obliged to betake themselves to the few hills they have, to escape drowning. I mention this fact to shew the intensity of the Tornado between the coasts of Florida north, and Yuccatan south. The westerly whirl of the breeze brought to us multitudinous flocks of Ducks. They were picked up by persons as they dropped exhausted in and about our towns;—among the number a sister of mine, had brought to her, by the servants, picked up in our yard at Montego bay, a specimen of the Anas maxima. She kept it some fifteen or sixteen months. The sexual instinct was so strong that it laid infertile eggs. In one season they were laid without any apparent injury, but in the second the bird died under the passionate influence;—a disease in the anal passage, being the consequence of the unsatisfied desire for a mate. I mention this case distinctively because the Anas maxima is altogether a new bird to naturalists.

Our winter just past,—for we are now swept by vernal equinoctial breezes, was exceedingly cold. The thermometer under the influence of strong north westerly gales sunk to 43o Fahrenheit on our mountains near here. In Cuba they report that the thermometer was as low as barely above Réaumur’s zero. In the midst of this weather, the gunners from our marshes, brought in two specimens of the Anas maxima. I received this information from a friend who has for some three years past been busy collecting birds for the Royal Society of Dublin of which Society he is an Honorary Member. I have mentioned this second fact in connexion with the first, to shew, that stormy breezes in both instances brought the birds to us, one being a hurricane, and the other boisterous winds from the North-West.

On the port royal beach, the Cassia obovata—Alexandrine Senna, is growing. It grows on the sand beaches of the further side of Port royal Harbour, and it is found on the sands at Salt-river in Old Harbour Bay Westward, but no where else. It is supposed to have been planted at port royal by the Spaniards, and to have drifted over to the other shores. We have in our salt pond Savannas, a very beautiful lofty and shady tree, bearing a sweet gummy pulp very much sought after by cattle, that collect under it, and wait the fall of the seed-pods. It was brought hither by Spanish Stock from Caraccas, and has been dispersed by them in their dung. Though not of fifty years introduction, it is fast being carried in the same way into the interior. It is seen now upon the banks of mountain streams. It is tracked upward not downward;—not dispersed by the rivers, but carried up by the stock feeding on the banks of rivers. The prosopis juliflora,—the tree known with us as Cashaw and with the French of Haiti as Bahiahond, a hard timbered Acacia, was introduced in a similar way. It now forms miles of lowland forest in both Jamaica and St Domingo.

Port Royal is unfitted for breeding and rearing poultry from the absence of all Fresh water, save that that is brought into it by the sailing-tanks of Government;—and the incapability of the land to sustain any succulent vegeation whatever. There is a scattered growth of the Tribulus,—a yellow blossom that covers the Savannas of the Liguanea and St Catherine’s plains, like butter-cups in English meadows, on whose petals the running poultry fatten, but this is not constant, and is at best only an aid to poultry feeding.

We have two distinctive river Mullets the Mountain Mullet, and the Hog-nose Mullet and both feed on the seeds of a Laurel called the Timber Sweet-wood, and wild figs. They take the fruit as they float down the stream, and can be caught with a line, if it be baited with these fruits.

The Whistling Duck, Dendrocygna arborea, breeds in captivity.— The pinioned Ducks take to nest making in the underwood about the ponds, in which they feed in association with the Muscovy Duck, Cairina moschata, and the Common domesticated Mallard, Anas Boschas. They perform the part of excellent decoys when bred and not pinioned for their own species in the Guinea Corn Season, when the wild flocks scour our Savannas at nightfall.

No attempt has been made to domesticate and breed the palemadeas occasionally brought hither from the Spanish Main— D’Azara speaks of the Indians rearing them, but says nothing distinctly implying that they breed them.4 When he says, he saw some brought up, among the domestic poultry at Country houses, and that they were as tame as fowls, and that they lived faithfully with their mates, we should judge he had seen them pairing in a state of domestication.

I have enquired and I find no one who has ever known the parrot in its submission to a life in human homes,—copulating— It seems of all birds the most completely to abandon its instincts;—for without cutting the wing, it is reconciled to relinquish flight, and to go climbing about.

Our Quails the Ortyx virginiana will breed in captivity:—but the enclosure must be spacious, for it is restless, and always running, and if the barred space in which it is kept is not close-boarded for about two feet up, it gets blind by the alternating effect of light and shadow from the bars upon the eye.

Our pimenta, Myrtus pimenta, is propagated entirely by birds. Germination seems only to be insured by the exciting influence of a passage through the birds intestines. This spice is peculiar to Jamaica among the West-Indian Islands. It is known only at Yuccatan on the Continent. The intestinal process of germination seems to be essential for the guava, psidium pyriferum; the forest hogs disperse it.

I will not forget my promises of other matters for you; but I find every body slow;—I wish they would be sure also;—tardy only to guarantee success.

With all respect I subscribe myself | My dear Sir | Your obedient Servant | Richard Hill Charles Darwin Esqre

CD annotations

crossed pencil; ‘Ducks carrying eggs of Crustacea not known’ added pencil
‘Birds Hurricanes A Duck’added pencil
crossed pencil
double scored pencil
3.15 breeze] ‘[illeg]’ added pencil
crossed pencil
scored pencil
4.9 breezes] ‘N’ added pencil
crossed pencil
‘Trees brought with mammals from Caraccas’added pencil
scored pencil; ‘d[itt]o.’added pencil
crossed pencil
‘Fish eating seeds.’added pencil
‘Dendrocygna arborea bred in Captivity’added pencil
crossed pencil
‘Parrots not breeding’added pencil
‘Quails breeding if pretty large space’added pencil
‘Myrtus by Birds’added pencil
‘Guava by forest Hogs’added pencil
crossed pencil
Top of first page: ‘18’5 brown crayon


CD’s letter has not been found, but it was evidently a response to the letter from Richard Hill, 10 January 1857.
P. H. Gosse 1847, to which Hill had contributed.
Azara 1801, 2: 323–4. CD’s annotated copy of this work is in the Darwin Library–CUL. The section referring to black-skinned Paraguayan fowl or Palamedea is marked with a ‘Q’. CD cited this passage in Variation 2: 209. See letter from Edward Blyth, 8 January [1856] and n. 12.
The number of CD’s portfolio of notes on the means of geographical dispersal of animals and plants.


Azara, Félix d’. 1801. Essais sur l’histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes de la province du Paraguay. 2 vols. Paris: Madame Huzard.

Gosse, Philip Henry. 1847. The birds of Jamaica. London: John Van Voorst.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Comments on transport of ducks to Jamaica by hurricanes,

fish feeding on seeds,

and sterility of birds in captivity.

Letter details

Letter no.
Richard Hill
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Spanish Town, Jamaica
Source of text
DAR 205.2: 238
Physical description
ALS 7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2064,” accessed on 20 May 2024,

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