skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Shaw   14 February 1866

Tynron, Dumfriesshire,

14 Feby 1866

Dear Sir,

I recd your kind and encouraging letter.1 I had but very lately remarked the fact to which you refer about butterflies wings and am thankful to you for the hint concerning the male foreign butterflies being prettier than the females, as I did not know that.2

With regard to birds admiring themselves and showing courtesy to their image in mirror or picture my chief authority was second-hand. It is quoted from Bennett (I suspect he who was Vice-President of the Zoological Society) in the article “Birds of Paradise” Knight’s English Encyclopaedia. It was a male nine years caged. The picture was full-length drawn by a Chinese artist. Bennett says he was the eye-witness.3

A gentleman, whose name I could get yet, came up to me after I had read my paper4 and said—“I believe you. I have a pet Canary which flew out of my cage. I searched all the room for it and espied it on the top of a small statuette pluming its feathers before the mirror. Previously I had shown it its likeness there”.

I had a kitten which used to divert itself before the mirror and even (as I thought) peeped behind it like a child, often altering its position with its paw.

I am in a situation here where I have considerable leisure time, and now that, with your encouragement, I have got thoroughly alive to this most interesting question, I will endeavour, through time, to pick up any more precise facts of the sort through my own experience or that of my scholars when I may trouble you with a selection of them.5

I am | Dear Sir, | Yours most respectfully, | James Shaw.


See letter to James Shaw, 11 February [1866] and n. 6. Shaw remarked on differences in beauty between female and male butterflies in Shaw 1866b.
Edward Turner Bennett, vice-secretary of the Zoological Society of London until 1831, then secretary (DNB), was not the source. The English cyclopædia, edited by Charles Knight, gave George Bennett’s Wanderings (Bennett 1834) as the source of a description of a male Paradisea apoda that reacted with comparable courtesy to a portrait of itself, painted by an unnamed Chinese artist, and to its own reflection in a mirror (English cyclopædia 1: 474–80); the original account, published in Bennett 1834, 2: 41–8, did not refer to self-admiration. CD later questioned whether jealousy of a supposed rival or other causes led birds to observe themselves in mirrors (Descent 2: 111).
Shaw 1866a; see memorandum from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866].
Shaw was master of the rural parish school of Tynron, Dumfriesshire, from 1862; this post enabled him to devote much time to natural history and literature (R. Wallace ed. 1899, pp. xxiii–xxxi). After CD’s death, Shaw referred to CD’s interest in beauty and sexual selection in an essay entitled ‘Dandies – animal and human’ (published in R. Wallace ed. 1899, pp. 250–62).


Bennett, George. 1834. Wanderings in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore, and China; being the journal of a naturalist in those countries, during 1832, 1833, and 1834. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

English cyclopædia: The English cyclopædia. A new dictionary of universal knowledge. 22 vols. and 4 supplements. Conducted by Charles Knight. London: Bradbury and Evans. 1854–73.


Reports instances of birds admiring their images in mirrors or on pictures.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Shaw
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 150
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5005,” accessed on 28 November 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14