skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From William Swale   16 February [1870?]1

Ornithology in Canterbury, New Zealand American Blight Bird.

Ornithologists state here that this Bird belongs to the family Luscindæ and probably to the genus Zosteropes.2 They also state that it is a small Migratory Bird. I think I am able to contradict this or nearly so for I am certain it has become a settler here like myself.3 It is called by the Maories “Kanohi-mowhiti”. It is with us winter and summer and very fond of ripe fruit when in season. In winter they fly in flocks from Apple tree to tree devouring the Aphis and cleaning the trees and all the carbuncles to all appearance but unfortunately the Blight finds its way again up the stem and branches from the bole of the trees during summer. Its little cranium is a very destructive one at any rate and I will give you the benifit of my experience of the onslaught, he and she, makes on my stone fruit. Soon as ripe cherries are fit to gather they make a perfect skeleton of the stones and leave them hanging; while these last in season they are always walking into them with their sharp pointed beaks or bills. Morello Cherries they finish up with. Their next favourite fruits are Green Gages and Apricots—these they make dreadful slaughter amongst to the tune of destroying bushels. They only chirp a little when in mischief. I can hear them where I now sit in my garden. They build their little tiny nests in very secluded nooks. I find a nest occasionally in a Peach tree which makes me think they must feed their young families—on the flesh of stone fruit.

Dear Sir, I thought I could not do better than send you this brief sketch of this little mischevious bird; feeling in my mind that it would be welcomly received. I have, of late, very often been reading of your Voyage in the Beagle.4

Dear Sir, receive this from your old Correspondent5 | William Swale | Avonside Botanic Garden | Ch. Church, Canterbury, N.Z. Feb 16

To | Ch. Darwin Esq.

Our Native plants, in this the Middle Island,6 stand their ground—and very firmly too. Take this hint, Dear Sir, and be cautious what you write forthwith about N.Z. vegetation in your “works”7 A stubborn fact goes a long way with you I know.


The date is conjectured from an early archivist’s note (possibly by Francis or Henrietta Emma Darwin) on the letter.
The blight-bird, or silvereye, Zosterops lateralis, is now in the family Zosteropidae. In the mid nineteenth century, the family was disputed, but some authorities placed it in Luscinidae (see Taylor 1870, p. 608).
Two articles were published on Zosterops lateralis in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 2 (1869): 61–2, and 3 (1870): 79. According to the second article, the bird had first been recorded in New Zealand in 1832, and appeared in greater numbers in 1856. The first article argued that the bird was a recent colonist (because of its habit of building suspended nests); the second argued that it was indigenous to the South Island and had recently spread north.
Journal of researches.
Swale had corresponded with CD in 1858 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter from William Swale, 13 July 1858).
Middle Island is now the South Island of New Zealand.
CD had written in Origin, pp. 201–2, that the endemic plants of New Zealand were retreating before the advance of plants introduced from Europe.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 26 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

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.

Taylor, Richard. 1870. Te ika a Maui. London: W. Macintosh.


Sends CD some notes on the habits of the "American Blight Bird" in New Zealand.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Swale
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Avonside Botanic Garden, Christchurch
Source of text
DAR 177: 324
Physical description
1p, encl Amem 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7109,” accessed on 26 January 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18