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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Alfred Newton   13 March 1874

Magd. Coll.

13 March 1874.

My dear Mr. Darwin,

I indeed thank you for your letter, which must have given you much trouble, and for your successful “cerebration” which has answered one of my enquiries—1 I immediately referred to your authority which I need scarcely say you quoted correctly— Still I doubt whether that Mr. Edward (whom I know by correspondence & report) is sufficiently trustworthy on this point.2 The increase of the Mistletoe-Thrush is undeniable & in my revised edition of ‘Yarrell’ I have collected much evidence on that subject, but that it should oust the Song-Thrush is I think very unlikely. They both, it is true, feed on earth worms to some extent, but so far as I know the Mistletoe-Thrush scarcely ever applies itself to the gathering of big snails (Helix aspera I think) in thick covert as the Song-Thrush habitually does—3 This Mr Edwards too in a former part of the same paper has a story about the Snowy Owl breeding in Aberdeenshire which is full of improbabilities not to say impossibilities—4 Yet he was or is a very worthy man, but only liable to run away with an idea—and I have not come across any other evidence as to the decrease of the Song-Thrush & from its migratory nature & its singular power of adapting itself to various habitats I do not expect that the assertion can be maintained—

May I hope that “cerebration” or a lucky chance may find the authority for the belief about the Fulmar?5

I wish indeed you could publish an Edition of the ‘Origin’ with footnotes giving your authorities— That would be a book! Could you not employ your new Secretary—to whom as to the rest of your family pray give my kind regards—on such a task, laborious as it would be?6

I am sure you may take the increase of the Starling as a fact7—and it is one I cannot yet see any way of accounting for that is not equally applicable to many other birds that are not increasing—

There is a point which I should much like to discuss with you but I don’t know when I may ever get the opportunity— perhaps you could tell me where I could find something bearing on the subject—

The fanatical party of those who wish to protect birds by Act of Parliament are always urging that no measures are of any use which do not prohibit the taking of eggs— Now anxious as I am to protect birds & conscious of the necessity of some protection I don’t agree with these people—8 Letting alone the impropriety of filling gaols with birds’ nesting boys such a step seems to me to be useless. To me it appears that the destruction of even many eggs can have but little effect on the existence of a species—so long as enough eggs are hatched to supply the vacancies caused by death in the ordinary way— and we may trust the instinct of birds to keep a sufficient number of nests out of harm’s way for that purpose. Supposing the existence of a species of bird to be the object we want to attain I often wonder what is the comparative value to that end of an egg, a nestling, or even a young bird that has flown, and a bird which is about to become a parent & has survived all the dangers of migration (& I believe that as individuals the majority of birds migrate) or of hard weather—. How would an actuary calculate the relative value of a bird’s life as an instrument in preserving the species in August and in March?

Any hints on this matter would be very gratefully received. I am pretty confident in my own opinion being correct but I find it very hard to persuade others—even when I cite the obvious case of a poultry yard in support of it—

Believe me | Yours very truly | Alfred Newton


In his letter to Newton of 12 March [1874], CD had cited an article by Thomas Edward (Edward 1856), in which Edward claimed that as mistle-thrushes increased in Scotland, song thrushes declined. There are two letters from Edward, a Scottish shoemaker, dated 1872 and 1879, in the Alfred Newton archive, Cambridge University Library (MS Add. 9839/1E).
In his revision of the first two volumes of the fourth edition of William Yarrell’s History of British birds, Newton described how the song thrush, unlike the mistle-thrush, fed on large snails (see Yarrell 1871–85, 1: 265).
See Edward 1856, pp. 5201–2.
See letter from Alfred Newton, 10 March 1874 and n. 4. Newton had queried CD’s claim that the fulmar petrel was believed to be the most numerous bird in the world.
Francis Darwin was to become CD’s secretary; he took up the post in summer 1874 (see Emma Darwin (1904), 2: 269). Origin had been published without references because CD intended that it should serve only as an abstract of his theory of natural selection (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, 30 March [1859], and letter to John Murray, 31 March [1859]). However, he never returned to the longer exposition of his theory that he had worked on from 1856 to 1858, and which contained footnotes (see Natural selection).
CD had mentioned the increase of starlings in Kent in his letter to Alfred Newton, 12 March [1874].
Newton had been involved in the 1869 Sea Birds Preservation Act (ODNB); a Wild Birds Protection Act was passed in 1880. It was not illegal to collect birds’ eggs in Britain until 1954.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Edward, Thomas. 1856. A list of the birds of Banffshire, accompanied with anecdotes. Zoologist 14: 5117–22, 5199–202, 5258–68.

Emma Darwin (1904): Emma Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin. A century of family letters. Edited by Henrietta Litchfield. 2 vols. Cambridge: privately printed by Cambridge University Press. 1904.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

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.

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.


Wishes CD could publish Origin with footnotes.

Increases in bird populations: starlings are increasing, but AN cannot give reason; mistletoe-thrush increasing but not ousting song-thrush. Doubts trustworthiness of [George?] Edwards, CD’s authority in Origin on this matter [see Origin, 6th ed., p. 59].

AN opposed to bird protection legislation to prohibit egging. Argues egging does not decrease number of birds.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alfred Newton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Magdalene College, Cambridge
Source of text
DAR 172: 50
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9358,” accessed on 4 October 2023,

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