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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Henry Reeks   3 June 1871

North End, | East Woodhay, | Newbury,

June 3rd 1871

My dear Mr Darwin,

I am very pleased to find that the evidence in question proved satisfactory.1

I feel fully convinced that your time must be very completely occupied in bringing out your new Edition,2 and I cannot expect,—neither do I desire it—that you should trouble to answer all my letters; all I request is that whether at home or abroad I may be permitted to scribble you facts as they occur to me; at the same time I trust you will not scruple to apply to me for information respecting objects of nature in Newfoundland or elsewhere, of which you may think it probable that I am tolerably well informed.

I forgot to mention in my last that by the time the does shed their horns they begin to “herd”, and ascend the “barrens” with their fawns3

In “The Field” of last Saturday, May 27th, a writer,—“R.B,”—(Dr. R. Brown?)—says, in a footnote, “The fawn, until it is of an age at which it is able to escape from the wolf, panther, or other enemy, carries no scent”!4 He is speaking of the black-tailed deer, but I cannot say whether he alludes to all deer: I fancy that he is mistaken if he includes the Cariboo; but, of course, I do not mean to assert that the scent-glands would be so fully developed in the fawn as in the adult, since they are probably of some use during the rutting-season, and have therefore been modified through sexual selection. Neither do I believe that the female Cariboo ever leaves her young “at feeding time, and goes off to some distance”, otherwise why are they constantly seen together in Newfoundland? the settlers (unless hard up for meat) often sparing the life of the mother for the sake of the infant fawn.

I have before told you that wolves and cariboo are both plentiful in Newfoundland, but you will, perhaps, be more astonished to hear that wolves, settlers and Indians all employ the same device in hunting the deer in winter! The marshes frequented by the deer at that season are, for the most part, surrounded by belts of Conifera—Abies, Larix,5 &c.—through which the deer have well-trodden paths; and it has been incontestably proved that when a herd of deer has been espied by a small pack of wolves, some of the latter secrete themselves in one or more of the leeward paths, while one or two wolves make a circuit round so as to give the deer their wind, when the herd immediately retreats, headed generally by the oldest and most powerful stag, towards the leeward paths leading into an adjoining marsh, and it rarely happens, as I have been repeatedly assured, that the wolves do not manage by this stratagem to secure a doe or young stag. Under less favourable circumstances of course the wolves have to “chase” the deer, and I have known instances of their doing so for a distance of 15 or 20 miles, as proved by their footing on the snow.

With regard to the protective colouring of eggs, it seems at first sight anomalous that the eggs of the nightingale should need such an effectual protective colouring, when the nest itself is so effectually hidden amongst rank herbage, such as nettles, the tangled stems of Clematis vitalba, &c, and is also such a deep nest—when raised from the ground as it very frequently is that I have sometimes been obliged to take a second look into it before I could see the eggs at the bottom. I presume that the eggs of the nightingale, or some early progenitor of that species, were originally white, gradually passing to pale blue; then darker blue spotted with rust or olive, and finally becoming entirely olive, for I have found all these varieties, or reversions: the two latter abnormal colours are not uncommon. The darker the colour of the eggs in such a dark and dismal situation the better their chance of protection against ground vermin, and these would prove far greater enemies than man, hence, I have no doubt, we may account for their extraordinary modification.

All objects of Nature have a tendency to vary. I know no plant more constant in its primary divisions than Nephrodium Filix-mas,6 yet I have recently found two fronds of this species branched—i.e., each had sent off a distinct rachis bearing perfectly developed pinnæ and pinnules! One of these specimens I have presented to the Royal Herbarium at Kew, and the other I have by me. I am perfectly aware that these are only accidental varieties, but such no doubt was the beginning of many undisputed species, and will ever continue to be, where conditions favour their reproduction—

Believe me, dear Mr Darwin, | Very faithfully yours, | Henry Reeks

To | C. Darwin, Esqre. M.A. F.R.S. | &c. &c—

CD annotations

1.1 I am … fawn. 4.11] crossed pencil
6.1 With … vermin, 6.12] crossed pencil
7.1 All … reproduction— 7.7] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘Instinct | wolves going round Deer (like Shepherd Dogs.) pencil


CD’s letter has not been found, but see the letters from Henry Reeks, 25 May 1871 and 30 May 1871.
Reeks probably refers to CD’s work on the sixth edition of Origin, which he started on 18 June 1871 (see ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).
See letter from Henry Reeks, 30 May 1871. Although CD added Reeks’s observation on female caribou or reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) retaining their horns longer to the second edition of Descent, he mistakenly referred to Nova Scotia rather than Newfoundland (see Descent 2d ed., p. 503).
The note appeared in an article ‘The hunter in California. Deer’ signed ‘R. B.’ (Field, 27 May 1871, pp. 428–9). ‘R. B.’ was probably Robert Brown (1842–95). The deer referred to in the article was the black-tailed deer (now Odocoileus hemionus hemionus). Fawns of this species have little or no scent (see Geist 1999, p. 287).
Abies is the genus of pine trees; Larix is the genus of larches.
Nephrodium filix-mas is now Dryopteris filix-mas, the male fern.


Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

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

Geist, Valerius. 1999. Deer of the world : their evolution, behaviour, and ecology. Shrewsbury: Swan Hill.

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.


Observations on habits of caribou and deer in Newfoundland.

Suggests nightingale egg coloration evolved from white to olive for protection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Stephen (Henry) Reeks
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 80
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7799,” accessed on 8 March 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19