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Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. J. Weir   18 April [1868]1

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

Ap 18

My dear Sir

You see that I have taken you at yr word & have not (owin to heaps of stupid letters) earlier noticed your 3 last letters, which as usual are rich in facts.2 Your letters make almost a little volume on my table. I daresay you hardly knew yourself how much curious information was lying in yr mind till I began the severe pumping process.

The case of the starling, married thrice in one day is capital, and beats the case of the magpies of which one was shot seven times consecutively.3 A gamekeeper here tells me that he has repeatedly shot one of a pair of jays, and it has always been immediately replaced.4 I begin to think that the pairing of birds must be as delicate and tedious an operation as the pairing of young gentlemen and ladies. If I can convince myself that there are habitually many unpaired birds, it will be a great aid to me in sexual selection, about which I have lately had many troubles and am therefore rejoiced to hear in your last note that your faith keeps staunch.5 That is a curious fact about the bullfinches all appearing to listen to the German singer;6 and this leads me to ask how much faith may I put in the statement that male birds will sing in rivalry until they injure themselves. Yarrell7 formerly told me that they would sometimes even sing themselves to death. I am sorry to hear that the painted bullfinch turns out to be a female; tho’ she has done us a good turn in exhibiting her jealousy, of which I had no idea.8

Thank you for telling me about the wildness of the hybrid canaries: nothing has hardly ever surprised me more than the many cases of reversion from crossing.9 Do you not think it a very curious subject? I have not heard from Mr Bartlett about the Gallinaceæ, & I dare say I never shall.10 He told me about the Tragopan, & he is positive that the blue wattle become gorged with blood & not air.11

Returning to the first of the last 3 letters. It is most curious the number of persons of the name of Jenner who have had a strong taste for natural history. It is a pity you cannot trace your connection with the great Jenner, for a duke might be proud of his blood.12

I heard lately from Prof. Rolleston of the inherited effects of an injury in the same eye.13 Is the scar on yr son’s leg on the same side & on exactly the same spot where you were wounded? and did the wound suppurate or heal by the first intention? I cannot persuade myself of the truth of the common belief of the influence of the mother’s imagination on the child.14

A point just occurs to me, (tho’ it does not at present concern me) about birds’ nests. Have you read Wallace’s recent articles?15 I always distrust myself when I differ from him; but I cannot admit that birds learn to make their nests from having seen them whilst young.16 I must think it as true an instinct as that which leads a caterpillar to suspend its cocoon in a particular manner— Have you had any experience of birds hatched under a foster-mother making their nests in the proper manner?

I cannot thank you enough for all yr kindness, & remain | my dear Sir | yours sincerely. | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from J. J. Weir, 5 April 1868.
See letters from J. J. Weir, 5 April 1868, [14 April 1868], and 16 April 1868.
See letter from J. J. Weir, [14 April 1868] and n. 3; in Descent 2: 105–6, CD cited Weir on the incident. For the case of the magpies, see the letter to W. D. Fox, 25 February [1868], the letter to J. J. Weir, 29 February [1868], and Descent 2: 103.
CD probably refers to William Reeves. See also letter to W. D. Fox, 25 February [1868] and n. 2.
In his letter of 16 April 1868, Weir had mentioned unpaired birds and also expressed the belief that all vivid colours in birds were the result of sexual selection.
See letter from J. J. Weir, [14 April 1868]. CD included the information in Descent 2: 52.
William Yarrell.
The information on the painted bullfinch (now Pyrrhula pyrrhula) was evidently in a now missing part of the letter from J. J. Weir, 5 April 1868, or the letter from J. J. Weir, [14 April 1868]. For earlier discussion of bullfinch behaviour, see the letters from J. J. Weir, [before 3] March 1868 and [before 5] March 1868.
CD refers to Abraham Dee Bartlett; see letter to J. J. Weir, 4 April [1868] and n. 4.
See letter from J. J. Weir, 16 April 1868. In a note dated 22 March, CD recorded Bartlett’s description of the wattle of male Tragopan temminckii becoming filled with blood (DAR 85: B103).
See letter from J. J. Weir, 5 April 1868. CD refers to Edward Jenner.
CD refers to George Rolleston. See letter from J. J. Weir, 5 April 1868 and n. 6.
See letter from J. J. Weir, 5 April 1868. Belief in maternal imagination as the source of various deformities was well established by the early eighteenth century (Todd 1995, pp. 47–52). For more on maternal imagination, see Huet 1993 and D. Wilson 1993.
CD refers to Alfred Russel Wallace and to A. R. Wallace 1867a, 1867e, and 1868.
See A. R. Wallace 1867e.


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

Huet, Marie-Hélène. 1993. Monstrous imagination. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.

Todd, Dennis. 1995. Imagining monsters. Miscreations of the self in eighteenth-century England. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, Dudley. 1993. Signs and portents. Monstrous births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. London and New York: Routledge.


Discusses rapid replacement of mates among birds. "I begin to think that the pairing of birds must be as delicate and tedious an operation as the pairing of young gentlemen and ladies. If I can convince myself that there are habitually many unpaired birds it will be a great aid to me in sexual selection". Notes rivalry of singing birds.

Heard from George Rolleston of the inherited effects of an eye injury.

Disagrees with A. R. Wallace’s idea "that birds learn to make their nests from having seen them whilst young" ["The philosophy of birds’ nests", Intellect. Obs. 11 (1867): 413–20].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Jenner Weir
Sent from
Source of text
Duke University, Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RL.10387)
Physical description
6pp inc and C 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6128,” accessed on 26 February 2021,

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