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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. J. Weir   3 June 1868

6 Haddo Villas | Blackheath SE

3 June 1868

My Dear Sir

I have all my life been an Ornithophilist but felt that I had scarcely been “Fancier” enough to venture to answer your questions on the Canary.1 I therefore went yesterday to make further enquiries at Spital Fields, but could not learn all I wanted to know, however I heard of a certain Mr. J Waller of Tabernacle Row2 Hairdresser who was looked upon as a great authority, on the subject of the “London Fancy”.—

I determined therefore to visit him & have my hair cut although it was very short already, he operated upon me this day for about half an hour chatting all the time on the subject, and turned me out with a Newgate cut for which I paid Three Pence.

But I have now quite grasped the whole question   It appears that Mealy, Buff, Jonques, Pied and Lizards are all the same when young as when mature, the plumage becoming a little brighter in the adult state & the males even from the nest being brighter than the females.—3

Now the London Fancy when in the nesting feathers are Lizards except with lighter beaks that is their bodies are spangled, wings & tail dark & crown of the head either yellow or mealy, in the first molt— they change all the feathers of their body but not the wing & tail feathers, these however when moulted in the next season become much lighter and ultimately all yellow except a slight color in the shaft.—4

But should any wing or tail feather be lost by accident during the first year it is replaced by a much lighter feather.—

To sum up These birds are Lizards in the nesting plumage, London Fancy after the first molt, and either Jonque or Mealy in the second or subsequent molts.—

There is no doubt but that the “London Fancy” are one aberration or sport from the Lizard, their light beaks shew the tendency to albinism or rather if such a word be permissable to Xanthism,5 if we consider the case analogous to the Cygnets of the common swan it appears to me all difficulty vanishes.—

The reason that they are Show birds for one year only is because the dark feathers are not all moulted simultaneously, if however a nesting plumaged bird were to have all the wing & tail feathers pulled out it would in the first season be a Jonque or mealy.—

I examined a ♀ Pavo cristatus in Leadenhall market on my way back which was spurred.—6

The birds which listened to the piping bullfinch were linnets, canaries, and one Wydah bird (Vidua erythroryncha).—7

It is quite true that birds reared by foster parents

Would you kindly give me one or two autographs on separate pieces of paper from your letter.— J J W8

CD annotations

1.1 I have … Pence.— 2.3] crossed blue crayon
3.1 It … females.— 3.4] ‘Canary Birdsadded blue crayon
4.1 Now … shaft.— 4.5] ‘(Canary Birds)’ added pencil
8.2 a nesting plumaged bird] ‘must be after first moult of birds feathers’ interl pencil after ‘bird’
9.1 I … parents 11.1] crossed pencil
12.1 Would … letter.— 12.2] scored blue crayon, crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘Young Plumage of Canaries’ red crayon


See letter to J. J. Weir, 30 May [1868]. Ornithophilist: lover of birds (OED).
James Waller of 49 Tabernacle Walk, Finsbury, London (Post Office London directory 1868).
Mealy or buff canaries were pale yellow; jonques were bright yellow or orange. Lizard canaries, a variety with spangling on the body, could be mealies (silver spangled) or jonques (golden spangled). Pied canaries also existed. Lizards were devoid of spangles in their nestling plumage, acquired their ‘show’ plumage after the first moult, and thereafter became paler with each moult. (See Kidd [1854] and R. L. Wallace [1889], pp. 242–9.)
London fancy canaries were like lizards but without the spangles. According to another writer, nestling London fancy birds should be like nestling lizards, that is, without spangles, although many of them were irregularly marked or pied. In the first moult they retained their dark wing and tail feathers, and acquired bright body plumage; in subsequent moults they lost their distinctive dark wing and tail feathers. (See R. L. Wallace [1889], p. 253.)
Xanthism: a neologism based on the Greek xanthos, yellow, formed by analogy with albinism.
See letter to J. J. Weir, 30 May [1868]. In Descent 1: 290 n. 28, CD said that in Pavo cristatus (the Indian peafowl), only the male had spurs.
See letter to J. J. Weir, 30 May [1868] and n. 5. Vidua erythrorhynchus is now Vidua regia regia.
This sentence was written at the top of the first page of the letter.


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

Kidd, William. [1854.] The canary. London: Groombridge & Sons.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Post Office London directory: Post-Office annual directory. … A list of the principal merchants, traders of eminence, &c. in the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent … general and special information relating to the Post Office. Post Office London directory. London: His Majesty’s Postmaster-General [and others]. 1802–1967.

Wallace, Robert L. [1889.] The canary book. 2d edition. London: L. Upcott Gill.


Plumage of canaries; changes in plumage with successive moults.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Jenner Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 181: 78
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6226,” accessed on 21 September 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16