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Darwin Correspondence Project

From S. A. Merrell   1 February 1869

Council Bluffs Iowa

February 1/1869

Mr Darwin

Dear Sir

I have lately procured a work of yours—“(The Origin of Species)” which I am now reading from time to time— I had read the “Vestiges” many years before and my own reflections on the variation of Animals and plants under domestic culture had fully prepared me to welcome your book long before I had the pleasure of seeing it1

I have also the work of the elder Darwin (Erasmus) entitled “Zoonomia or the laws of Animal Life”, which in the last century anticipated the theory promulged in the Vestiges.2

My present object in writing to you is to correct a statement of Dr Brewer’s in your Book to the purport that the American Cuckoo never uses the nests of other birds for depositing its eggs and rearing its young.3

I remember well when a boy living at home in Illinois, to have seen a case of the kind in my father’s orchard.

My attention was called to it by noticing a great commotion among the birds, and seeing a cuckoo slip away from the nest which was built in the top of an apple tree, I lost no time in climbing up to it.

Guess my surprise on reaching it, at seeing a young Cuckoo and a young Jay bird crouched in the nest side by side.

It was a nest of the Blue Jay—Garrulus cristatus. The young cuckoo was about twice the size of the Jay, and looked as though he had chiefly monopolized the food from both parents.4

It was nearly full feathered when I discovered it, and seemed to shrink from me as though he felt conscious of the essential meanness of his position. To my young mind, there was an expression of guilt in its eyes as it crouched itself back into the nest, and I was greatly tempted to throw it out of the nest at once. However, the novelty of the thing prevailed over my sense of justice and I left them both in the nest together until they were gone away—

This is the only instance of the kind I have ever seen, and indeed is the only time I ever saw the young of the Cuckoo at any time

But there could be not the slightest chance of mistake as to the identity of the birds for both the young birds were nearly full feathered especially the young cuckoo—

If to know this fact will be of any service to you I shall feel amply paid for the trouble of writing to you

I am, Sir | very truly yours | S A Merrell


Merrell refers to Origin and to Vestiges of the natural history of creation ([Chambers] 1844). For CD’s assessment of [Chambers] 1844, see Correspondence vol. 3, letter to J. D. Hooker, [7 January 1845] and n. 5.
Merrell refers to E. Darwin 1794–6. CD had appended a note to his discussion of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck’s views on species change in the historical sketch for the authorised American edition of Origin: ‘It is curious how completely my grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, anticipated these erroneous views in his Zoonomia (vol. i. pp. 500–510), published in 1794.’ (Origin US ed., p. vi n.). The note appeared in all subsequent editions of Origin. CD also discussed Vestiges of the natural history of creation ([Chambers] 1844) in the historical sketch, but did not specifically link Erasmus Darwin’s views to those of Robert Chambers.
Thomas Mayo Brewer had been cited on this point in Origin, p. 217.
CD added Merrell’s information to Origin 5th ed., p. 266.


[Chambers, Robert.] 1844. Vestiges of the natural history of creation. London: John Churchill.

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

Darwin, Erasmus. 1794–6. Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson.

Origin 5th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 5th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1869.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Origin US ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. A new edition, revised and augmented by the author. By Charles Darwin. New York: D. Appleton. 1860.


Corrects T. M. Brewer’s statement, cited in the Origin, that the American cuckoo never uses other birds’ nests. [See Origin, 5th ed., p. 266.]

Letter details

Letter no.
S. A. Merrell
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Source of text
DAR 171: 157, 157/1
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6589,” accessed on 18 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17