skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Alfred Newton   10 March 1874

Magd. Coll.

10 March 1874.

My dear Mr. Darwin,

I had, curiously enough, been meditating on a letter to you, when this morning I had the pleasure of receiving yours.1

Unfortunately I cannot be in London on Monday next or I need scarcely say that I should have been glad to do anything in my power to assist your nephew’s election at the ‘Athenæum’—2 With the claims he possesses however I should suppose that he is very safe.

The point upon which I was going to trouble you was this— In the ‘Origin’ (4th. Edn. p. 76) you say:—

“the Fulmar petrel lays but one egg, yet it is believed to be the most numerous bird in the world”.

Far be it from me to say that the latter assertion is not accurate—but I must confess I would gladly know on what authority it is made—for I take it some authority is to be found though I have not met with it—and I really write for information.3 My own experience would lead me to think otherwise— but I place no particular confidence in it—though even granting that the Fulmars of the North Atlantic of the North Pacific & of the Antarctic Ocean are really of one “species” (each has been described as distinct) your statement seems open to enquiry if not doubt.4

There is also another point on which I would venture to ask for information— You say (op. cit. p. 87):—“The recent increase of the missel-thrush in parts of Scotland has caused the decrease of the song-thrush”— The increased range of the Misseltoe-Thrush is undeniable but I do not know of any authority for the rest of the statement—and I must say that judging from the different habits of the two species I am inclined to suspect that it may be founded on insufficient observation.5

One of the most remarkable instances of the supplanting of one species by another is that which I have mentioned in the 4th. Edn. of Yarrell’s ‘British Birds’ which I am now bringing out— Montagu (an excellent authority) & other ornithologists of his day concur in saying that the Marsh Titmouse was commoner than the Coal-Titmouse— Except in a very few localities, the contrary is now unquestionably the fact, and it is owing I suspect to the increase of fir-plantations, which are not favourable to the Marsh-Titmouse but very much so to its conqueror.—6

Trusting that you will favour me with a few lines on these subjects I am with kind regards to you & all your family | Yours very truly | Alfred Newton


CD had been canvassing support for his nephew Henry Parker, who was seeking election to the Athenaeum Club on Monday 16 March 1874 (see letter to George Bentham, 9 March [1874]).
CD’s statement was possibly based on the observation by Edward Sabine that the number of fulmar petrels flying northwards over Jacob’s Bay (Iluissat), Greenland, was almost as large as the number of passenger pigeons seen in flights in America (Sabine 1818, p. 553). In the early nineteenth century, the passenger pigeon was one of the most numerous birds on earth (see Barrow 2009, pp. 96–9).
Newton had seen fulmar petrels during a journey to Iceland in 1858 and again in 1864, when travelling to Spitzbergen (see Wollaston 1921, pp. 27, 29, and 82). These northern fulmars, whose range is the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans, had been named Procellaria glacialis by Linnaeus in 1761. The southern fulmar petrels that are found in the Southern or Antarctic Ocean were first described by Andrew Smith in 1840 and named Procellaria glacialoides (Andrew Smith 1849, pt 2, plate 51). They are now called Fulmarus glacialoides. The genus Fulmarus has only two species, F. glacialis and F. glacialoides; it is in the family Procellariidae.
CD had used the information about the relative numbers of the mistle-thrush and the song thrush as evidence for his argument that the struggle for life was most severe between individuals and varieties in the same species (Origin 4th ed., p. 87). According to Newton’s revision of the first two volumes of the fourth edition of William Yarrell’s History of British birds, one of the habits in which the song thrush (Turdus philomelos) differed from the mistle-thrush (Turdus viscivorus) was in feeding on large snails by breaking their shells (see Yarrell 1871–85, 1: 265).
Newton made this observation about the relative numbers of the marsh titmouse (Parus palustris) and the coal or cole titmouse (Parus ater) in Yarrell 1871–85, 1: 491; these birds are now classified as Poecile palustris and Periparus ater respectively. Newton refers to George Montagu and Montagu 1802, vol. 2, s.v. ‘Titmouse–cole’.


Barrow, Mark V. 2009. Nature’s ghosts: confronting extinction from the age of Jefferson to the age of ecology. Chicago, Ill., and London: University of Chicago Press.

Montagu, George. 1802. Ornithological dictionary; or, alphabetical synopsis of British birds. 2 vols. London: J. White.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

Sabine, Edward. 1818. A memoir on the birds of Greenland; with descriptions and notes on the species observed in the late voyage of discovery in Davis’s Straits and Baffin’s Bay. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 12: 527–59.

Smith, Andrew. 1849. Illustrations of the zoology of South Africa … collected … in the years 1834, 1835, and 1836. 5 pts. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Wollaston, Alexander Frederick Richmond. 1921. Life of Alfred Newton, professor of comparative anatomy, Cambridge University, 1866–1907. With a preface by Sir Archibald Geikie. London: John Murray.

Yarrell, William. 1871–85. A history of British birds. 4th edition. Revised and enlarged by Alfred Newton and Howard Saunders. 4 vols. London: John Van Voorst.


Questions correctness of two statements in Origin: 1. That fulmar petrels are the most numerous birds in the world;

2. That the increase of one form of thrush in Scotland has been concomitant with the decline of another form.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alfred Newton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Magdalene College, Cambridge
Source of text
DAR 172: 49
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9348,” accessed on 28 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22