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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Edward William Vernon Harcourt   31 May 1856

Dear Sir.

I found your note here, on my arrival from London the other day. It would give me great pleasure to be able to answer any of your questions.1 I passed four winters in Madeira, i.e. from Oct: 1847 – April 1848 Nov: 1848 – May 1849 Nov: 1849 – May 1850. Nov: 1850 – April 1851. So that I cannot speak from personal experience as to the habits of birds in Madeira during the months of June, July, August, and Sept: I had however the advantage of an acquaintance with the Revd. R. T. Lowe, whose residence of 24 years in Madeira and whose habits of accurate scientific observation gave such authority to the information he most kindly and freely afforded me, as I was very fortunate to obtain.2 I am quite aware how little dependance may be placed generally on the accounts which travellers often, on the authority of others, are in the habit of giving. I shd. therefore always be especially careful in receiving the testimony of those who had not been well drilled in habits of observation.

I enclose for your acceptance my notes on the Madeiran birds, and shall be extremely gratified if they interest you;—3 I have placed a pen mark against those birds which I have myself seen in the Island, it follows therefore that those have been found there between the months of October & May; I have placed o against those birds which I did not see my-self, but of whose presence as occasional visitants, from the reliability of my informants, I can have no doubt.4

Cathartes percnopterus, may perhaps be found in Madeira once in every three or four years, it appears in Berthelot’s list of the birds of the Canary islands,5 in Malherbe’s list of African birds,6 in Ignatius Asso’s list of Spanish birds (Aragon)7 as well as in Capt. Widrington’s list of Spanish birds (Seville).8 from any of these contiguous countries it might well find its way to Madeira— I may observe that during the prevalence of the Easterly winds which blow from the African coast to Madeira, (being called Harmattan on the W. coast of Africa and l’Este in Madeira) most of the visitants arrive—and as these winds do not prevail more at one time of year than another, the migration of birds to Madeira is probably involuntary and more affected by winds than seasons. This does not apply to the seabirds which occasionally visit the Island.

Falco nisus, which occurs in the lists of the birds of the Canaries, of Africa, & of Spain, is found in Madeira perhaps once in two years

Falco subbuteo, may be described in like manner.

Corvus corax, is occasionally brought over in a domestic state by the traders from Lisbon, there is therefore the chance that the only individual I heard of as having been killed in Madeira had escaped from captivity. Then, again, on the other hand, we find this species in the African and Canary lists.

Corvus corone, occurs perhaps once in two years this bird appears in the lists of African specimens as well as in those of Spain, but not in those of the Canary islands.

Corvus frugilegus, of which I have lately received three fine specimens from Madeira shot in June of last year by a friend, does not appear in Berthelot’s list of the birds of the Canaries, altho C. monedula does occur in Teneriffe, which bird has never, to my knowledge, been found in Madeira.

Oriolus galbula, is of not unfrequent occurrence.

Sternus vulgaris, appears in flights of 5 or 6 together after or during strong easterly wind (I omitted to observe that Oriolus galbula is not mentioned in Berthelot’s list!)

Turdus iliacus & musicus are both rare visitants They may be found perhaps once in two years. This is the more curious as the T. merula is very plentifully found in the island.

Sylvia hortensis, I never heard of but one specimen of this bird being shot in Madeira, I did not see the specimen, and as the bird does not appear in either the African or Canary lists, its advent to Madeira must be considered remarkable. (If my authority is as correct in his information as he is positive)

Troglodytes Europæus, has occurred in Madeira, on the Authority of the Revd. R. T. Lowe; it is found in the African lists, but not in those of the Canary islands. I never heard of but one specimen being found in Madeira, & I did not myself see that specimen.

Motacilla alba, occurs, according to my information once in every two or three years, it is included in the lists of the Canary islands.

Alauda arvensis, has been found in Madeira, I have no data for determining how often.

Fringilla chloris, may be found some two or three times a year in Madeira; this bird is not mentioned in the lists of the Canary I.!

F. domestica which has been once (as far as I know) obtained in Madeira does not appear in the lists of the Canaries or of W. Africa. It is however not uncommon in parts of Spain.

Cuculus canorus, one or two specimens of this bird are generally shot in the course of the year in Madeira.

Musophaga Africana, has been found about once in 3 or 4 years; it does not appear in the lists of the Canary Islands.

Upupa epops, appears in flocks every year, at various times.

Merops apiaster, of this bird perhaps on an average one specimen is obtained in the Course of the year.

Alcedo ispida, two or three specimens are generally taken during the year.

Hirundo urbica, one specimen may perhaps be obtained of this bird in Madeira during the course of the year. It does not appear in Berthelot’s list.

H. rustica, two or three specimens a year is the utmost that the most attentive observer has remarked, tho’ it is more frequently seen in Madeira than the H. urbica.

H. riparia. I once saw one of these birds in Madeira, and tradition goes that another had once been seen, at any rate its occurrence is very rare, and it is not known in the Canaries.

Caprimulgus Europeus, is obtained at the average of one a year, perhaps hardly so frequently.

Columba Œnas, is of rare occurrence, I only saw one specimen when I was in Madeira. It does not appear in the lists of the Canary islands.

C. turtur, occurs once or twice a year in Madeira I have seen it blown on board ship at a lat: of about 2o. north of Madeira in the month of May— And once we had contemporaneously a flight of Hirundo rustica, which fell like rain in a state of complete exhaustion on the deck and about the rigging of our ship; in the same lat:

Œdicnemus crepitans, occurs about once in two years.

Calidris arenaria, I never saw in Madeira, but I understand it is found every two or three years there.

Vanellus cristatus, is found in parties of 2 & 3 about every other year, at most,

Charadrius hiaticula, so common in Africa and S. Spain, has only (to my knowledge) occurred once in Madeira, and has never been noted in the Canary isles.

C. pluvialis, occurs after the same fashion as C. cristatus.

Strepsilas interpres, has occurred in Madeira and that is all I know about it.

Ardea Nigra, has also occurred, but I shd. imagine it is very rare.

Ardea Cinera, perhaps 6 or 7 specimens on average appear in Madeira in the course of the year—

A. ralloides, makes it appearance about once in two or three years, at most.

A. russata, is of still rarer occurrence, and does not appear in the lists of the Canaries.

A. purpurea, is shot about once in two years; it is curious that this bird shd. not find its way to the Canary islands!

A. minuta, must be very rare.

A. Stellaris. one or two a year.

A. nycticorax. Not an uncommon visitant Several in the course of the year.

Platalea leucorodia, about once in 4 years

Limosa melanura, about once a year.

Numenius arquata, two or three a year; this bird does not occur in the lists of the birds from the Canaries.

N. phæopus, found most years, but not so frequently as the N. arquata.

Tringa pugnax, I saw two females, I never heard of any others in Madeira, nor did I hear of the male bird of that species being found there.

T. subarquata, I am informed is found in Madeira once in every two or three years.

T. variabilis, I found twice in Madeira, I could obtain no further information concerning it.

T. cinerea, I am told by Mr. Lowe has been seen in Madeira. T. variabilis is the only T. mentioned as occurring in the Canaries.

Totanus hypoleucos, is rare, occurring once in 3 or 4 years.

T. Glottis, is more common, appearing on an average once in two years; it does not appear in the lists of the Canary islands.

Scolopax gallinago, is shot three or four times in the course of year;

S. major appears in about the same numbers as the common Snipe.

Crex Baillonii, occurs once in three or four years. neither this, nor the former bird are recorded by Webb & Berthelot.

C. pratensis, is said to occur once in two or three years.

Porhpyrio allenia, the specimen I obtained of this bird was very young; I never heard of any other being found in Madeira

Gallinula chloropus, is found every year in more or less abundance.

Fulica atra, the same may be said of this bird.

Anser segetum, is shot most years in Madeira, it appears in companies.

Marecea Penelope, I never saw in Madeira, & have only the record of one having been shot there.

Anas crecca, appears in about the same numbers as Anser segetum.

A. boschas, I have only certain information of one having been killed in Madeira.

Sterna nigra, Mr. Lowe once saw one of these birds.

S. Dougalli, appears in my list on the authority of Sir W. Jardine.9

Larus tridactylus, is not uncommon in Madeira It may possible breed there, but of that I have no certain evidence.

L. cataractes, is found about once in two years— As you have, doubtless, Webb & Berthelots book,10 there is no use my remarking further upon which birds do or do not occur in the Canary islands; but, considering the propinquity of the two groups to each other, the comparison is curious.

Colymbus glacialis, the specimen I saw was a young bird, it was killed in an exhausted state; I never heard of another being taken in Madeira, wh: is far out of his accustomed beat.

Sula Alba, was once obtained by Mr. Lowe.

Procellaria mollis, I never heard of but three specimens of this bird in Madeira.

P. Pacifica, and one specimen of this bird.

Prion brevirostris, I saw the one specimen named by Mr. Gould, & exhibited by Mr. Yarrell at a meeting of the Zool: Society—11 this constitutes my entire acquaintance with the bird.

Thalassidroma pelagica, finishes the list, and I never heard of but one specimen in Madeira.

I must now apologise for the length to which I have extended my explanations, but could not well make them shorter in answer to your questions.

I have no data to go upon wh: would enable me to answer the question “whether wanderers of the same species of birds which permanently inhabit the island are ever blown from the Continent to Madeira”. Of course, where the distance is only 250 miles, it is perfectly possible, and indeed probable.

In answer to your other question “Whether any regular migratory Birds inhabit Madeira?” Cypselus unicolor, C. murarius, & Scolopax rusticola, Breed in the island and always are found there.12

The variance of the recorded visits of different species of birds of the same genus to the Madeiras and the Canary islands, will doubtless strike you as very remarkable: as also, why many birds of the same genus should be distinguished from each other as frequent and infrequent yearly visitants at the same island.

I have now to the best of my power, answered the questions you put to me; I only hope the length of my answers have not tired you— For my part, it has given me great pleasure to have had an opportunity of thus making acquaintance with one whose name is so well known to all loves of Natural History.

Believe me, dear Sir, | Yrs. faithfully, | Edward Vernon Harcourt.

Hastings | May 31. | 1856.

CD annotations

3.5 I may observe … seasons. 3.10] double scored pencil
4.2 found in Madeira] cross added pencil
5.1 Falco subbuteo,] cross added pencil
7.1 Corvus corone,] cross added pencil
8.1 three fine specimens] underl pencil
9.1 Oriolus galbula,] cross added pencil
10.1 Sternus vulgaris, … wind 10.2] cross added pencil; double scored pencil and brown crayon
11.1 Turdus iliacus and musicus] two crosses added pencil
14.1 Motacilla alba,] cross added pencil
16.1 Fringilla chloris,] cross added pencil
18.1 Cuculus canorus,] cross added pencil
19.1 Musophaga Africana,] cross added pencil
20.1 Upupa epops, … times.] cross added pencil; scored brown crayon
21.1 Merops apiaster,] cross added pencil
22.1 Alcido ispida,] cross added pencil
23.1 Hirundo urbica,] cross added pencil
24.1 H. rustica,] cross added pencil
26.1 Caprimulgus Europeus,] cross added pencil
28.1 C. turtur,] cross added pencil
28.2 And once … same lat: 28.4]triple scored ink
31.1 Vanellus cristatus, … most,] scored brown crayon
60.1 Anser segetum, … companies.] scored brown crayon
67.3 but, considering … curious. 67.4] scored brown crayon
75.1 I have no … tired you— 78.2] scored brown crayon


From the letter it seems that CD had asked Harcourt about birds that were rare or occasional visitors to Madeira and whether there were any migratory species based there. Harcourt was the author of A sketch of Madeira; containing information for the traveller, or invalid visitor (Harcourt 1851). In the ‘To be read’ section of his reading notebook, CD wrote: ‘Vernon Harcourt has published account of Madeira with list of Birds (some migratory). Yarrell has’. On 8 June 1855, CD noted that he had read the work (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, *128: 173; 128: 12). CD’s notes on Harcourt 1851 are in DAR 71: 87–8.
Richard Thomas Lowe had been chaplain on Madeira, 1832–52.
Harcourt’s pamphlet on the ornithology of Madeira (Harcourt 1855) is now in DAR 196.4. It is annotated by CD. On the final page (p. 8) Harcourt added the information: ‘I have since received from Madeira the Fringilla velata, vel Hyphantorius textor, shot by a friend in June/55, and the Prion brevirostris of Gould (new to science) & Corvus frugilegus.’
CD’s copy of Harcourt 1855 has been marked, as described in the letter, by Harcourt. To one or two species he also added further information as to the age or sex of the specimen seen. The list of birds given by Harcourt in the letter follows the order given in Harcourt 1855, p. 8.
Webb and Berthelot 1836–50, 2 (pt 2) Zoologie: 1–48. Horace Bénédict Alfred Moquin-Tandon was actually the author of the ‘Ornithologie Canarienne’.
[Widdrington] 1834.
William Jardine.
CD did not own a copy of Webb and Berthelot. He recorded that he had read the work on 30 January 1846 with the comment: ‘(My notes with Hookers Copy)’ (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 119: 16a). See also letter to Charles Lyell, 16 [June 1856], in which CD asked to borrow Lyell’s copy. Some undated notes on this work are in DAR 196.4.
John Gould exhibited a new species of Prion ‘through the kindness of Mr. [William] Yarrell’ at the Zoological Society of London in 1855 (J. Gould 1855).
When CD came to write up his species book, he made the following comment on migratory birds (Natural selection, p. 494): I have been much struck in the case of oceanic islands, lying at no excessive distance from the main-land, but which for reasons to be given in a future chapter, I do not believe have ever been joined to the mainland, with the fact that they seem most rarely to have any migratory Birds. Mr. E. V. Harcourt who has written on the birds of Madeira informs me that there are none at Madeira: … He also discussed the information given in this letter in Natural selection, pp. 256–7.


[Asso y del Rio, Ignacio Jordán de]. 1784. Introductio in oryctographiam, et zoologiam Aragoniæ accedit enumeratio stirpium in eadem regione noviter detectarum. [Madrid].

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

Gould, John. 1855. On a new species of the genus Prion. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 23: 87–8.

Harcourt, Edward Vernon. 1851. A sketch of Madeira; containing information for the traveller or invalid visitor. London: John Murray.

Harcourt, Edward William Vernon. 1855. Notes on the ornithology of Madeira. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2d ser. 15: 430–8.

Malherbe, Alfred. 1846. Catalogue raisonné d’oiseaux de l’Algerie, comprenant la description de plusieurs espèces nouvelles. Metz.

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.


Extensive notes on Madeiran birds: when and where seen on the island and under what conditions.

Letter details

Letter no.
Edward William Vernon Harcourt
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 166: 100
Physical description
12pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1883,” accessed on 17 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6