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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. D. Fox   29 October [1868]1

ArchBishop Whately life, Vol II. 171

“I have sown the seeds of the White Bk Currant & the white variety of the Woody Nightshade—& all of them—as many as have flowered—have come true.

On the other hand, I have sown the berries of the Florence Court Yew (which Botanical Books speak of as a distinct species) & all that have come up as yet, have been common yews.”2

32 years since W D Fox brought berries from Dr Darwin’s hedge; of Hollies of yellow berried kinds (& which Dr Darwin told W D Fox he had himself sown with yellow Berries)—and about half have grown up large enough to berry—& bear yellow fruit— The other half Red berries.3 I cannot state exact proportions as many have not yet fruited. As far as they have about half are yellow 12 red.

Copper Beech— At Piddle Hinton Rectory—near Dorchester there is a fine copper Beech.

3 years since when W D Fox was there—he found about half of the young plants, (grown accidentally in an Asparagus bed beneath the tree) were well coloured copper Beeches & 12 the usual colour.— Some that were brought away, promise to be very nice trees, with dark leaves.4

From Times August 6. 1868

“The Keeper here found a hawks nest with 5 young in it. He took & killed 4 but left one with its wings clipped as a decoy for the old ones.

They were both shot next day in the act of feeding. The next day he came & found 2 other charitable hawks who had come to succour the orphan⁠⟨⁠.⁠⟩⁠ He killed these 2 & left nest. Afterwards he found 2 more charitable individuals on same errand of mercy— One of these he killed— The other also he shot, but could not find— No more came.”

F. O. Morris—by the Honble & Rev W. W. Forester.”5

Delamere Ry | Northwich Oct 29 My dear Darwin

The above extracts I copied thinking they might interest you. The ArchBishop evidently was no Botanist—& the Keeper a Brute, as most are.

I have to thank you for a very kind letter received a few days since.6 You ask about myself so I am obliged to enter into that disagreeable subject. I have been more or less an invalid for the last 12 month.7 First Dr thought it heart & recommended Bitter Beer— 2d Dr doubted but recommended Claret instead of Bitter Beer— Hoped it was not heart—but rather liver & Stomach— 3rd D— recommended dry Sherry thought it neuralgia of walls of stomach, &c. 4th Dr thought nothing was the matter, possibly Gout. Not to drink Port Wine, which I find by a side wind he does himself 5 days a week, but feels he is ⁠⟨⁠y⁠⟩⁠oung.

Lastly—I am assured it is not heart—or Liver—possibly not Neuralgia of Stomach—possibly is derangement of Blood Vessels—positively is not cancer or tumour of stomach or Gout. I have taken every vegitable poison—Strichnine—Aconite—Bella Donna &c—& most of the mineral do— — My last Do was a course of Aconite. There! I hope you will understand what is the matter with me.

At times I suffer a good deal—at times I am free from pain. I am however now in very tolerably comfortable health, with care not to stoop—overdo my strength &c & get thro a good deal of work in all ways. I have very much to be thankful for in all ways.

Of course a continual pain is annoying, but I dwell upon it as little as I can help.

I promised Dr Tanner8 to leave home from 1 Novr to Xtmas & go Southwards but a succession of causes have kept me from being able to do so before the 9th. when if I can I mean to take a fortnight at either Isle of Wight or Hastings. I must then come to the Election, to vote for 2 Divs of Derbyshire9—& shall remain at home for the Xtmas holidays. (I have now 1 Boy at Christchurch Oxford—1 at Kings Coll—1 Boy at School at Whitchurch & 2 girls at schools in London10—& I must make them a happy home at Xts. Tanner then wants me to go to some decided place—Algiers—he recommends—but that is out of the question. I shall go South however if necessary.

Well I have given you—a full acct of myself, as you asked— There is no one else I wd do so to.

So to work. I could not make any experiments this Summer from want of health & power. But a very clever Keeper, “Jesse England” who has all his life observed Birds—gives me the following facts.

With regard to “the Magpie Marriage”.

We used to have a very great Number of Magpies in the Forest till he destroyed them.11 They well performed for us, the place of Rooks, & used to be in Numbers from 20 & upwards quite commonly together.

He tells me “he can well remember a great Congregation of Magpies one early spring in a part of Forest called The spreading Oak Field—and that he shot 5 of them. That they were chattering & flying about amongst the trees, & sometimes fighting.”

My own recollections I before told you.12 I have seen all the Magpies apparently of the Forest—several times in the early months of year Jany or Feb—I think the former—all congregated together with a universal chattering & Bustle.

I watched them for some time & was much amused with the evident importance of the whole Affair. In two instances certainly—I noticed that after this day—the Magpies were all in pairs— I always called it “the Magpie Marriage”—& have frequently mentioned it as having taken place. Jesse England says that with Magpies & Carrion crows, he has frequently observed that when he has shot the Cock Birds (he says the hens are generally too wary) from the nest, that another has come & taken their place.” And he gave me this case as occurring this Summer. “I shot the cock Bird of a Carrion Crows nest in Mr Wilbrahams Wood—13 The hen was shy & I could not kill her”— The young hatched at least a fortnight afterwards when I shot another Cock Bird at nest—& afterwards I caught the hen Bird with a trap.”

He said he had many times shot cock Birds of Magpies & Carrion Crows & found another took their place. That it is much easier to kill the Cocks, as they feed the Hens on nest & are less wary.

I before told you that I had myself when a lad shot Carrion Crows from nest at Osmaston, & to my surprise observed a pair again in a day or two.14

England tells me—(to give you an idea of the abundance of our Magpies a few years since) that he with another man—shot 19 Cock Magpies from the nest one morning.15

His experience will in some measure answer your Questions as to the sex— Probably 9 out of 10 are the cock Birds.

Partridges. He never saw an odd Bird. But partridges are so companionable, that there is little likelihood of ever doing so. He says he has often known 2 hens to 1 Cock bird, & that they have generally had large coveys—so as to make him sure both birds bred.

On the other hand he has known several times 2 cocks to 1 hen, when they rarely or never have any young ones.

This year he has observed 5 old Cock Birds, which have always kept together this season—2 of which he has killed.16

Partridges fight very pertinaceously— he only two days since watched a Battle for a long while.17 They scuffled at each other—pecking & scratching with their feet (they have no spurs)—& continue this for hours.

Pheasants he has known frequently kill each other (I picked up a splendid Cock in Bolton Abbey Wood18 some years since in March, which had evidently been killed by a spur thro the head).

On one occasion—England said a Man called him into his garden to see a Battle going on, which he said he had watched above an hour.

Both cocks were so exhausted that England picked them up & put them in his pockets. After a while one was able to run away—but the other died.

Wild-Ducks— The pairing of these may throw some light upon the matter. It is generally said that wild ducks must be paired to do any good in hatching.

I have no doubt they generally do in a wild state, but I do not believe always— At all events in a semiwild state—they do much better 2 or 3 ducks to a Mallard—& this Summer—England (who breeds a great Number on a large pond)—killed off his Mallards so as to leave 7 or 8 Ducks to each, & he never has been so successful or had larger broods.19 His ducks are in a completely wild state except that they come to feed.

Englands experience with respect to Hawks (Kestril & Sparrow Hawks) is opposed to Honble & Rev Foresters acct. He says he never observed a fresh cock come if he killed one—but that he has often found the Cock Bird will bring up the young, if he killed the hen bird. Very lately he shot a hen Kestril or Sparrow hawk who had young—& caught the Cock Bird a fortnight afterwards on nest.

This was on a spruce tree at least 15 feet high— he left the trap set, & to his astonishment a day afterwards found a stoat in it.

There are cases innumerable of other Birds (not the Parents) feeding young Birds, & I can quite imagine the Parental feeling prompting this as it wd in ourselves. This wd account for the Magpies you mention feeding the young of those who had been killed.— With regard to there being odd birds unpaired, I can easily imagine that there may an excess in particular districts of either sex—but these would not mope singly, but wd herd together generally, I shd say. Then many Birds must die during pairing season—especially females, as it is a critical time with them—& I have several times met with fine cock Birds of the smaller kinds of finches &c—dead, without any apparent cause in spring. These wd all cause vacancies in the domestic circle requiring to be filled up.

I believe Concubinage is not uncommon among birds. I told you of the Man at Chester, who breeds Canaries—putting a paired cock to several other hens. He impregnates them, & they build & bring up the young—he, is meanwhile being an excellent husband & Father to his wife & chn by her.20

I must tell you of a white Muscovy Duck, hatched here this year among some 30 others. To the great amusement of my children, she cocks her tail exactly like a hen.

I shewed her today to a Miss Hall with us—who immediately said “she is a Hen Duck”. It is a curious variety. Mrs Fox21 says that it illustrates Darwin—& finding that Ducks wd not do any good in such hot summers, is retrograding to a hen. I am trying to take care of it—to see what her eggs do next year.

I have a list of the sexes of sheep—& cows for many years past, which I will send you shortly.22 I shall have satisfied you for the present, if you read thro all I have written.

Turkeys— My wild & 12 wild Turkeys fight very much— Even at this time of year the young Cocks are constantly doing so—and the Hens also with ea: other— They spur each vigorously—throwing the weight of body well in the attack— They also bite & tear each other about neck & head. In spring—you cannot keep 2 Cocks in a flock— I feel sure the stronger wd kill the weaker bird.

The Cocks go some distance from Farm yard to Farm yard to attack distant neighbours—a mile or more. They are eminently pugnacious Birds.

Both Guinea Fowl & Peacocks fight.

I think I before told you that Guinea Fowl do better—1 cock to 2 or 3 Hens than when paired.23 That they are not highly moral, I can give you a good proof in that this year— I had 2 Pearl Birds paired—all the rest—8 or 10—were white.

Out of 32 Birds reared under hens, & therefore eggs taken at random—6 only were white—the rest pied more or less. The Pearl Cock was the master of yard & evidently made the most of his opportunities. Now if Guinea Fowl, Wild Ducks & partridges—all of whom pair as rigidly perhaps as most birds, (& whose peccadilloes we only know better, because they are larger birds & under our eyes) take these liberties, and as Canaries certainly do also—I have little doubt that a great deal of licence prevails generally among birds—even when strictly paired, and I have little doubt but that generally an odd female wd be compassionately cared for by some cock bird in her neighbourhood, who wd keep her in some Rosamonds Bower, where she might bring up her young unknown to the Wife.24 Males I have no doubt generally herd together until they can meet with a lady love.

It has often puzzled me what becomes of all the cock pheasants Bk Game25—Turkey Cocks &c that are extra—as I suppose we may take 5 Hens to one cock as an average, in Breeding season. Some no doubt kill each other, but still the actual deaths must be small in number, to those beaten & driven away from their victorious Rivals’ domain. What becomes of these unwilling Bachelors.— I cannot help thinking that when driven far from their Rivals haunts—some one of his Concubines takes compassion on his loneliness & deserts to him.

In this country Gamekeepers are a sort of providential arrangement to kill the extra cocks—but in a state of nature those kindly animals do not exist & what then?

As I am sure about an equal number of the sexes are produced, upon our usual calculation of the habits of these birds—out of 20 Pheasants &c hatched—there wd be 10 cocks—& only 2 being required for the 10 hens—there wd be 8 odling Bachelors.

Fancy this as the state of things in general in a Forest.

And generally speaking they do not seem to herd together—as pairing Birds do. I cannot fancy a Community of Cock Turkeys—Cock pheasants &c in spring.

Animals do often herd together in separate sexes, as deer for instance—but I do not imagine any of these Birds do so.

If you succeed in getting the number of sexes of poultry Ducks &c. you will, I feel sure, find an almost equal Number of the sexes— I have noticed often in both Hens, Ducks, Geese, &c that they are about equal in the average— Not in each particular year. For instance this year I have 15 Mallards to 4 Ducks—& sometimes there is an excess of Turkey Cocks one year—& of hens the next—but on the average I am convinced you will find no disparity of sexes.

Well, my dear Darwin, I will dismiss you. I wonder whether you will get thro my letter.

By the “sexual selection” reminds me that this year I have 2 flocks of geese— One White Swan Geese—the other Common Irish. They always appeared to be separate, & the respective Ganders to guard each others flocks but to my surprise out of 32 Goslings there are only 4 which are common Geese tho’ 2 geese sat & brought out about 20.

To this day the flocks keep quite distinct but the 12 bred swan Geese are undeniable & make noble birds.26

It is common for pigs not to take to one Boar, but admit another immediately.27

Did you see a wise writer in the field congratulate the World upon the excess of male Wolves over females. He saw several times one female pursued by numbers of males he said, which proved his point.28

Well! Well! as a neighbour says. I will conclude   you will say I am grown old & garrulous. Olden times make a chat with you a pleasure. I rejoice to hear Leonards success. It almost equals your Cambridge Son.29

Kindest regards to Mrs Darwin | Ever yours | W D F

CD annotations

3.1 I have sown … yews.” 3.3] scored blue crayon
4.3 about … berries. 4.4] scored blue crayon
6.3 12 the usual colour.—] scored blue crayon
8.1 “The … succour 9.2] crossed blue crayon
15.1 At times … facts. 19.3] crossed blue crayon
19.2 “Jesse England”] underl blue crayon
20.1 With regard … taken place. 24.4] enclosed in square brackets blue crayon, crossed blue crayon
20.1 Magpie Marriage”.] underl blue crayon
22.3 That … fighting. 22.4] scored blue crayon
24.1 I watched … Affair. 24.2] double scored blue crayon
24.4 Jesse England] opening square bracket blue crayon
24.4 Jesse … exhausted that 35.1] crossed blue crayon
25.2 That it is … less wary. 25.3] scored blue crayon
27.1 Magpies] underl blue crayon
33.1 Pheasants … the head). 33.3] ‘Pheasants killing each other’ added blue crayon
35.1 Both cocks … died. 35.2] crossed blue crayon
37.2 At all events … Mallard—] double scored blue crayon
38.1 Englands … filled up. 40.10] crossed blue crayon
40.7 especially … with them—] scored blue crayon
41.1 I believe … chn by her. 41.4] scored blue crayon
41.1 I believe … opportunities. 49.3] enclosed in square brackets blue crayon
42.1 I must … opportunities. 49.3] crossed blue crayon
48.1 I think … paired. 48.2] scored blue crayon
49.2 The Pearl Cock … opportunities. 49.3] double scored blue crayon
49.3 Now if … also— 49.6] double scored blue crayon
50.1 It has … noble birds. 59.2] crossed blue crayon
60.1 It is … immediately.] enclosed square brackets blue crayon
61.1 Did you see … Mrs Darwin 63.1] crossed blue crayon
Top of letter: ‘Dom. Animals’ blue crayon


The year is established by the reference to the success of Leonard Darwin (see n. 29, below).
The quotation, with some minor changes, is from the Life and correspondence of Richard Whately (Whately 1866), 2: 171. Richard Whately was the archbishop of Dublin from 1831 to 1863.
In Variation 2: 19–20, CD referred to the trees raised by his father, Robert Waring Darwin, from a wild yellow-berried holly; CD wrote that his father’s trees also produced yellow berries.
In Variation 2: 19, CD had cited Alphonse de Candolle’s finding that only about a third of the seedlings of the copper beech displayed purple leaves.
The quotation is a rough transcription of a letter to The Times, titled ‘The murder of British birds’, 6 August 1868, p. 10; the letter was forwarded to Francis Orpen Morris from Orlando Watkin Weld Forester, and was an account given to him by a gamekeeper. CD quoted the account from The Times, not from Fox’s transcription, in Descent 2: 107 n. 8.
See also letter from W. D. Fox, 3 February [1868].
Dr Tanner has not been identified.
The divisions of Derby and South Derbyshire held elections on 16 November 1868, East Derbyshire’s election was on 17 November, and North Derbyshire’s was on 24 November (The Times, 16 November 1868, p. 8, and 19 November 1868, p. 6). Fox grew up outside Derby, and the Fox family still held property at Osmaston Hall and at Elvaston, both in south Derbyshire. As a result of the Reform Act of 1867, new constituencies had been created, including two new MPs for Derbyshire (see Hanham [1959]).
Charles Woodd Fox, Fox’s second son, was studying at Christ Church, Oxford (Alum. Oxon.). Robert Gerard Fox, Fox’s third son, was a student at King’s College, London (Boase 1894). Fox’s fourth son, Frederick William Fox, born in 1855, may have been attending a nearby school in Whitchurch, Shropshire. The two daughters have not been identified; Fox had sixteen surviving children (Darwin pedigree).
See letter to W. D. Fox, 14 May [1868]. CD referred to the celebration of the ‘great magpie marriage’ in Descent 2: 102; he cited Fox as the source of information on magpies in Delamere Forest.
England may have worked for George Fortescue Wilbraham, a prominent landowner in the village of Delamere (Ormerod 1882, 2: 107). CD noted accounts of one of an adult pair of birds being killed, and quickly being replaced by another, in Descent 2: 103.
Fox may have mentioned this in the missing portion of his letter of [before 14 May 1868]. CD included the case in Descent 2: 104. Osmaston Hall, near Derby, was the Fox family home (see Correspondence vol. 1).
See Descent 2: 102.
CD referred to these various pairings of partridges in Descent 2: 106; he credited Fox for the information in Descent 2: 107 n. 7.
CD included a section on the ‘Law of battle’ for birds in Descent 2: 40–51, but did not include these cases.
Bolton Abbey is in North Yorkshire, north-west of Leeds and Ilkley.
CD cited Fox for this information in Descent 1: 270.
Miss Hall has not been identified. Fox also refers to his wife, Ellen Sophia Fox.
Rosamund’s (or Rosamond’s) bower: a labyrinth that Henry II was said to have constructed for his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, at Woodstock Palace (see EB and ODNB).
Fox refers to the black grouse (Tetrao tetrix).
CD included Fox’s account in Descent 2: 114, giving the alternative name of ‘Chinese goose’ for the Irish goose; see letter from W. D. Fox, 9 December [1868] and n. 4.
In Descent 2: 273, CD included Fox’s information, crediting a ‘clergy-man, who has bred many pigs’.
Nothing on wolves was found in October 1868 issues of the Field.
On the recent successes of Leonard Darwin and George Howard Darwin, see the letter to W. D. Fox, 21 October [1868] and n. 7.


Alum. Oxon.: Alumni Oxonienses: the members of the University of Oxford, 1500–1886: … with a record of their degrees. Being the matriculation register of the university. Alphabetically arranged, revised, and annotated by Joseph Foster. 8 vols. London and Oxford: Parker & Co. 1887–91.

Boase, Charles William. 1894. An alphabetical register of the commoners of Exeter College, Oxford. Oxford: printed at Baxter’s Press.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Darwin pedigree: Pedigree of the family of Darwin. Compiled by H. Farnham Burke. N.p.: privately printed. 1888. [Reprinted in facsimile in Darwin pedigrees, by Richard Broke Freeman. London: printed for the author. 1984.]

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

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Hanham, Harold John. [1959.] Elections and party management: politics in the time of Disraeli and Gladstone. [London]: Longmans.

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.

Ormerod, George. 1882. The history of the county Palatine and city of Chester. 2d edition, revised and enlarged by Thomas Helsby. 3 vols. London: George Routledge & Sons.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.

Whately, Elizabeth Jane. 1866. Life and correspondence of Richard Whately, D.D : late Archbishop of Dublin. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.


Thanks CD for a recent letter.

Reports on his health, which has been bad for 12 months.

Sends extracts of works on domestication.

Discusses the pairing of various birds; comments on the pugnacity of partridges, pheasants, male guinea-fowl, and peacocks.

Gives proportions of sexes in pheasants.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Darwin Fox
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 164: 189; DAR 193: 112; DAR 83: 187, DAR 84.1: 128–30, DAR 86: A87–9
Physical description
18pp inc & damaged †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6436,” accessed on 22 October 2021,

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