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Darwin Correspondence Project

To W. D. Fox   25 February [1868]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Feb. 25th

My dear Fox

You have been an acute observer of Birds, & may come across sharp gamekeepers & sportsmen-naturalists in the course of next 2–4 months.— Will you aid me?— I have references, somewhere safe, on one of a pair magpies being repeatedly shot on or near the nest; & each time a new mate was found in course of few days. A gamekeeper this morning told me that he had just trapped one of a pair with young, & in 2 days a pair to his surprise again frequented the nest.—2 Can you get me other instances with magpies, carrion-crows, hawks, jays or any other Bird.

When possible to say, which sex was killed? How can you account for this fact: the gamekeeper said he has never noticed single magpies during pairing season. It is incredible that there shd be many single birds unpaired, always ready to pair. Or will one of a pair, which have failed in rearing young, always break his or her troth & join a widow or widower with the attraction of a nest. The gamekeeper also said that he had never seen an unpaired partridge; yet surely there must sometimes be an excess of males or females.— Think, enquire & be a good man & try & illuminate me.—

I am working at what I call “sexual selection” & want all facts & cases of polygamy (is any bird in England besides the pheasant polygamous?)—of the females alluring the males—of victorious males getting wives—of attachment between individual birds—anything & everything— I am driven half-mad by the number of collateral points which turn up in my present enquiry.— Did your half-wild male Turkeys fight? & how, I forget whether they have spurs— Do Partridges use their rudimental spurs in fighting; I suppose no man can answer. Do you know anything about fighting of Guinea-fowls, or Peacocks—

Forgive me   Forgive me. Your old friend & tremendous bore. | C. Darwin

P.S. Do not hurry yourself to answer— Tell me nothing except you feel very sure; for remember that there are many too glad to pitch into me.—


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and CD’s note, dated 25 February 1868, in DAR 84.2: 202 (see n. 2, below).
CD recorded the information on magpies from the gamekeeper William Reeves in DAR 84.2: 202, adding the remark: ‘We can understand magpie case only by supposing many birds do not like each other & do not pair or do not nest, & will pair with bird with nest’. Reeves was a gamekeeper for John Lubbock; CD reported his observations of magpies in Descent 2: 103. For CD’s other references on magpies, see Descent 2: 103 n. 5.


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


Is working on "Sexual selection"; asks WDF to send observations on birds’ finding new mates during breeding season [see Descent 2: 103–7].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Darwin Fox
Sent from
Source of text
Christ’s College Library, Cambridge (MS 53 Fox 148a)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5929,” accessed on 7 December 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16