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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Alfred Newton   4 March [1867]

Down. | Bromley. | Kent S.E.

Mar 4—

My dear Sir

Very many thanks about the Dotterel, & I am pleased to hear of this additional evidence.1 I have looked to Swinhoe’s papers, but the case does not seem very conclusive.2 After writing to you I remembered that the female of the carrion-hawk of the Falkland I’s (formerly called Polyborus N. Zealandii) is very much brighter coloured than the male, as I ascertained (Zoolg. Voyage of Beagle: Birds) by dissection; I have written to the Missionaries there about its nidification & if I receive any answer, will inform you.3 The other day I thought I had got a case at the Zoolog Gardens in the Casuarinus Galeatus, in which the female has the finest & brightest caruncles &c; but Sclater tells me it wd be rash to trust to the comparison of a single pair, & he tells me that the male ostrich has the finest plumes.4

With my best thanks | I remain my dear Sir | yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin

P.S. Mr Blyth tells me that according to Jerdon, the natives say the male Turnix alone incubates & attends to young—5

There is another consideration which might lead to the females being the most beautiful, viz if they were the more numerous than the males & the species were not polygamous, for in this case the more beautiful females wd. be selected.—6


Newton had suggested that CD look at some recent papers of Robert Swinhoe’s for information on male Turnix sitting on eggs (see letter from Alfred Newton, 21 January 1867 and n. 7).
The last extant letter to Newton from CD is that of 23 January [1867]. See also annotation to letter from Alfred Newton, 1 March 1867. No letter to the Falkland Islands asking about the bird has been found, nor has a later letter to Newton on the bird’s nidification. CD had noted that female Falkland Islands carrion hawks were more brightly coloured than the males in Birds, p. 16 (see also Ornithological notes, pp. 237–8, and R. D. Keynes ed. 2000, pp. 210–12). He gave this information again in Descent 2: 205–6, but added that nothing was known about the species’s incubation habits. The carrion hawk CD observed was probably Phalcoboenus australis, the striated caracara (Birds of the world 2: 250).
CD refers to the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park. He had been to London from 13 to 21 February 1867 (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 15, Appendix II)). CD also refers to Philip Lutley Sclater; no letters have been found between them on cassowaries. In Descent 2: 204, CD noted that the female was larger and more brightly coloured in the common cassowary (Casuarius galeatus, now C. casuarius, the southern cassowary). CD cited Sclater on the plumes of the male ostrich in Descent 2: 205.
The letter, or fragment of a letter, in which Blyth mentioned Turnix (button quail) has not been found; Newton also informed CD of publications describing the incubation of eggs by males in Turnix (see n. 2, above). In The birds of India (Jerdon 1862–4, 2: 597) Thomas Claverhill Jerdon discussed the incubation of eggs by males in T. taigoor, the ‘black-breasted bustard-quail’. CD noted this information and quoted other portions of Jerdon’s description in Descent 2: 201–2. An Indian subspecies of the barred button quail is now known as T. suscitator taigoor (see Birds of the world 3: 54).
For more on CD’s consideration of sexual selection in birds when females were more colourful and more numerous that males, see Descent 2: 207–8.


Birds of the world: Handbook of the birds of the world. By Josep del Hoyo et al. 17 vols. Barcelona: Lynx editions. 1991–2013.

Birds: Pt 3 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. By John Gould. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1839–41.

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

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

Jerdon, Thomas Claverhill. 1862–4. The birds of India; being a natural history of all the birds known to inhabit continental India, with descriptions of the species, genera, families, tribes, and orders, and a brief notice of such families as are not found in India, making it a manual of ornithology specially adapted for India. 2 vols. in 3. Calcutta: the author.

Ornithological notes: Darwin’s ornithological notes. Edited by Nora Barlow. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History). Historical Series 2 (1959–63): 203–78.


Thanks for information about the dotterel.

CD had ascertained by dissection that the female of the carrion-hawk of the Falkland Islands is very much brighter coloured than the male. Has inquired about its nidification. Mentions other instances of female birds that are brighter and more beautiful than the males and suggests causes for this anomaly.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alfred Newton
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 185: 89
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5430,” accessed on 23 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15