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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Alfred Newton   21 January 1867

10, Beaufort Gardens. | S.W.

21 Jany. | 1867

My dear Sir,

If I remember right the instance of Rhynchæa was cited at Nottingham by Mr. Edgar Layard (not by me) with reference to a remark of Mr. Wallace’s to the effect that among birds the plumage of the male was invariably more brilliant than that of the female.1

I therefore hazarded the suggestion that perhaps in Rhynchæa the duties of incubation were performed by the male, adding that I had had no personal acquaintance with the species of that genus—abnormal & peculiar as they are in many respects—but that I had some reason from my own observation to suspect that such was the case in Phalaropus (including the subgenus Lobipes).2

When in East Finmark in 1855 I ascertained for myself that the female of Phalaropus hyperboreus was the larger & the most highly coloured of the two sexes—3 This was no new discovery, for the fact though subsequently contradicted had been stated before. The same summer & in the same locality I found that the male of this bird shewed much greater devotion to its young when they were in danger than the female did—4 I do not know when the idea first crossed my mind, but it was either then or three years later in Iceland, when I had abundant opportunities of observing the same species, that it struck me that there was in all probability a connexion between the facts I have mentioned. Your beautiful theory had not then been published & was of course unknown to me, or I should have probably at once seen the desirability of making precise observations to determine the truth of my hypothesis—and I have never since had the opportunity of doing so— But I still entertain a strong belief that it will be found that in those species of Grallæ wherein the plumage of the female far exceeds in brilliancy that of the male, the male has the greatest share in the duties of incubation— Among these species may be specially cited Phalaropus hyperboreus & P. fulicarius, Limosa lapponica & L. ægocephala, Tringa canutus & T. subarquata, but there are probably at least as many others—5

Of Limosa lapponica I have twice had sent me from Lapland the birds which had been killed (snared I believe) on the nests. In each case they were in the pale dull plumage which has caused the birds wearing it to be described as a distinct species (L. meyeri Leisler), and though the sexes were not noted by the collector, from the small size of the specimens I have little doubt of their being males— One of them I have still at Cambridge, & can send it to you when I return thither if you like to see it.6

It would seem from Mr. Swinhoe’s statements that a similar state of things would obtain in the genus Turnix.— Cf. Ibis, 1865, pp. 542, 543, & 1866, pp. 131, 403, 405.7

As to your enquiry respecting the Swans I am sorry to say I have no information to give, nor do I know where you could obtain any except perhaps from Mr. Samuel Gurney—8

Trusting that some of the foregoing statements may be of use to you, and assuring you that it gives me great pleasure to write to you, | I remain, | Yours very truly | Alfred Newton

C. Darwin, Esq. F.R.S.

CD annotations

1.1 If … respects— 2.4] crossed pencil
2.4 I had some reason … Lobipes 2.5] scored pencil; ‘had some reason’ underl pencil
2.4 my own … that there 3.8] crossed ink
3.1 the female of … two sexes— 3.2] scored pencil
3.4 the male … female did— 3.6] scored pencil
3.8 was in … plumage of 3.14] crossed pencil
3.14 the female … others— 3.17] crossed ink
3.14 the male has … incubation 3.15] double scored pencil
4.1 Of … killed 4.2] double scored pencil
4.2 (snared … Cambridge, 4.6] crossed ink
4.6 & can … see it. 4.7] double scored pencil
5.1 It … to you, 7.2] crossed pencil
End of letter: ‘J. G.— Swans & see about Turnixpencil


For CD’s query regarding the brightly coloured females of a species of Rhynchaea (painted snipe; now Rostratula), see the letter to Alfred Newton, 19 January [1867]; CD wrote that Alfred Russel Wallace had referred him to Newton on the subject. The discussion with Edgar Leopold Layard at the Nottingham meeting of the British Association was not recorded either in the Report of the thirty-sixth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1866, or in the brief discussion published with the full text of Wallace’s paper at the meeting, A. R. Wallace 1866a.
Newton refers to what is now called the red-necked phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus, which is sometimes still placed in the monospecific genus Lobipes (Birds of the world 3: 532).
In 1855 Newton travelled to Finnmark, in the extreme north of Norway (DNB). Newton refers to the bird now named Phalaropus lobatus (Audubon 1827–38); see n. 2, above.
CD quoted this statement of Newton’s in Descent 2: 204 n. 20.
The now obsolete order Grallae included all wading birds. CD noted Newton’s comments on Limosa lapponica (the bar-tailed godwit) and ‘some few other Waders’ in Descent 2: 204 n. 20. Newton also refers to what is now Phalaropus fulicaria, the red phalarope. Limosa aegocephala, the black-tailed godwit, is now L. limosa, while Tringa canutus, the knot (a sandpiper), is now Calidris canutus (Peters et al., 1931–87). Tringa subarquata, the curlew sandpiper, is now Calidris ferruginea (Audubon 1827–38).
There is no evidence that Newton sent the specimen to CD.
Newton refers to publications by Robert Swinhoe in Ibis n.s. 1 (1865): 538–46, and 2 (1866): 129–38 and 397–406. In Ibis n.s. 1 (1865): 542–4, Swinhoe described his discovery of a male button quail (Turnix) caring for its young, and published a description of the species he called T. rostrata (now T. suscitator rostrata; see Birds of the world). In Ibis n.s. 2 (1866): 131, Swinhoe suggested that the male T. rostrata incubated the eggs. In Ibis n.s. 2 (1866): 403–4, Swinhoe further discussed the classification of the species of Turnix found in 1865.
For CD’s query on the black swan and black-necked swan, see the letter to Alfred Newton, 19 January [1867] and n. 5. CD mentioned the black swans in Descent 2: 226–7, and the black-necked swans in ibid., p. 230, when discussing the role of sexual selection in conspicuously coloured birds; he did not cite Samuel Gurney, or any other author, on the subject. His notes on the two different swans are in DAR 84.2: 200a and 200b. CD’s last annotation suggests that he thought Newton may have intended to recommend the ornithologist John Henry Gurney.


Audubon, John James. 1827–38. The birds of America, from original drawings. 4 vols. London: the author.

Birds of the world: Handbook of the birds of the world. By Josep del Hoyo et al. 17 vols. Barcelona: Lynx editions. 1991–2013.

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.


Suggests that, in some birds, plumage of males is less colourful than that of females; the reason is that the males perform the duties of incubation [see Descent 2: 204 n.].

Letter details

Letter no.
Alfred Newton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Beaufort Gardens, 10
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 22–5
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5374,” accessed on 11 April 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15