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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Shaw   19 April 1866

Tynron Parish School, Dumfriesshire.

19th April 1866.

Dear Sir,

According to promise & in answer to your wish expressed in your note of 11 Feb. I proceed to give a few facts in connection with the love of beauty by animals.1 The facts I daresay are very humble & commonplace but shall be as correctly reported as possible.

I have a black bantam cock and hen. The cock is fully two years old and is a great pet, allowing me to lift him whenever I please with the slightest possible remonstrance and evidently well pleased at attention paid him. I have tried him several times with the mirror he being handsome & having a very pretty rose- comb. He never once pecked at his shadow there but walked mincingly & slowly before it on his toes or drew up a foot as he does when one speaks coaxingly to him. I took him one day into the parlour & placed the mirror on the carpet. There were no crumbs to be had, yet for ten minutes he seemed quite pleasantly employed surveying his likeness and walking mincingly before it and saluting it with a good many crows. The hen bantam was not altogether indifferent to the mirror, holding up its foot and looking. My Spanish cock pecked at himself in it as did the hen, latterly however he became content with a short stare without pecking.

Having carried my bantam cock one day out to the garden where I was working a little, beside a circle of snow drops, I was surprised at him tearing off the flowers with his bill. In less than a minute he picked off more than a dozen flowers. I carried him out next morning when he tore off about half a dozen.

Dr. Grierson Thornhill2 who has a museum & is well versed in natural history has informed me that he had a monkey which was a pest in the garden owing to its disposition to tear off the flowers from their stalks. He showed it a large book of coloured drawings of animals— it clutched at the insects, and started back at the serpents.—

Mrs Hunter Milton Tynron to whom I read my paper &c3 said that she had a pet canary which leaped about the table at meal-times but of all articles on the table nothing was so attractive to it as a polished cruet in which it saw its reflection. It was continually hopping about that article and sorting its tufts before it. She has often seen her peacock unfurling its feathers and strutting with self-complacency before the mirror of the glass door when the sun was shining on it or before the window. When she took it into the room it did the same before the mirrored wardrope, but its satisfaction out-of-doors before the window was more marked.

Mr Mitchell of the Dumfries Courier4 has shown me his canary a male nine years old— not quite yellow, but with an olive stained plumage. It submits to the introduction of his finger on which it perched & he brought it out to me. When he opens the door of its cage one of the first things it does is to fly towards the mirror and perch itself on some article before it where it can see itself. It never pecks at its shadow but looks quietly at it or trims its feathers before it. It sometimes flies backwards & forwards before the mirror. Mr Mitchell I understand has had the canary 9 years— he says it is as well known as himself in Dumfries. Mr M. is quite convinced that the mirror is an article of luxury grateful to the canary.

Mrs Hunter Milton Tynron had a parrot very aristocratic in its tastes. It would allow genteel well dressed people to pay it attentions but not the servants or ill-dressed people.

Mr Macfarlane writer Falkirk says to me in a note.5 When I was a boy & kept pigeons had it been legal & honourable I was firmly convinced that by the use of mirrors I could have attracted towards my dovecots half the pigeons of the parish.

The hints which you kindly gave me of the possibility of proving that “the beauty of flowers and some kinds of fruit are modified &c by bird & insect are very suggestive indeed.6

I felt when you first flashed the light of your discovery on me like an astronomer at sight of a new planet. On the poetical side of the suggestion there are a thousand lyrics to be sung by poets and other eloquent persons yet to come. Birds and insects to build up a world of beauty is more astonishing than how coral reefs are built up.7

Before the heat of public controversy sets in on these theories I find many testimonies in their favour by unprejudiced observers.

I caught the Revd Mr Wood8 for instance, full of the conviction that the Atalanta butterfly slowly hovering & displaying its gaudy wings in the sunshine was conscious of its own splendour and describing the great part played by colour in the loves of the sticklebacks in an aquarium.

I have read a review of your ‘Teachings’ in the Quarterly Journal of Science.9 It is well-intentioned but perhaps the reviewer like myself is no great naturalist, at least I thought so. I was more interested in your portrait which is there & which I had never seen before.10

This is a pastoral district & I daresay anecdotes about sheep & collies could be more plentifully collected than these I humbly submit.

I am Dear Sir | Yours respectfully | Jas. Shaw.

CD annotations

5.4 She has … before the window. 5.6] scored pencil
6.3 When … before it. 6.6] scored pencil
6.8 Mr M … canary. 6.9] scored pencil
7.1 Mrs Hunter … people. 7.3] scored pencil
10.3 Birds … up. 10.5] scored pencil
Top of letter: ‘(Appreciation of Beauty)’ pencil


See letter to James Shaw, 11 February [1866]. CD had asked Shaw for information about birds that displayed ‘courtesy towards their own image in mirror or picture’, to which Shaw had alluded in a recent paper, ‘The appreciation of beauty by animals’ (Shaw 1866a; see letter from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866]).
The reference is to Thomas Boyle Grierson of Thornhill, Dumfriesshire. See also letter from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866] and n. 10.
Catherine Hunter. The reference is to Shaw 1866a.
Donald Mitchell was a reporter for the Dumfries Courier and a member of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (Dumfries Courier, 4 October 1876; Transactions and Journal of the Proceedings of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (1862–3): 16).
Robert Macfarlane of Thornhill, Falkirk (County directory of Scotland 1868) has not been further identified.
Shaw alludes to CD’s work Coral reefs.
James Julius Wood was minister of the Free Church in Dumfries (Modern English biography).
Shaw refers to Anon. 1866. For further discussion of the review, see the letter from James Samuelson, 8 April 1866, and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 July 1866.
The portrait, a lithograph apparently based on a photograph taken by Ernest Edwards, appeared in Quarterly Journal of Science, facing p. 151. CD may have sat for Edwards during his visit to London from 8 to 20 November 1865 (Correspondence vol. 13).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

County directory of Scotland. Edinburgh: R. Grant & Son, Arthur Giles. 1862–1912.

Modern English biography: Modern English biography, containing many thousand concise memoirs of persons who have died since the year 1850. By Frederick Boase. 3 vols. and supplement (3 vols.). Truro, Cornwall: the author. 1892–1921.


Anecdotes about appreciation of beauty by animals.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Shaw
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Tynron Parish School
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 10–13
Physical description
7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5060,” accessed on 4 December 2021,

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