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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. J. Weir   11 March 1868

6 Haddo Villas | Blackheath SE

11 Mch 1868

My Dear Sir

You were kind enough to receive favorably some observations I had made on sexual coloration in Australian Finches of the genus Amadina,1 and at the risk of boring you will now add some on the English Finches.—

I will premise by observing that all the truly British species of both Fringillidæ and Emberizidæ2 including the rarest have been kept by me in captivity & therefore I have had the advantage of comparing their different actions in the breeding season, the greater number have not however displayed any disposition to pair.—

There is but one species which displays any brilliant color on the wings, the male Goldfinch has however a very jet black shoulder, the tips of the primaries should also be dark with white spots about 6 in number visible when the wing is closed, and the tertiaries have also dark tips with three white spots visible, this the fanciers call 3 by 6, but the most conspicuous ornament is the brilliant gold edging of the feathers of the wings from which the name of the bird is derived.—

Now when a male goldfinch approaches the female under sexual excitement, he sways his body from side to side slightly expanding his wings and producing when looked at in front quite a dazzling golden flash, thus enhancing his attractions in this respect three fold, first one gold wing is turned towards the hen & in an instant the other is presented to her gaze, no doubt the brilliant color remains on her retina thus as with our selves a continuous flash of gold is produced.—

I have watched all the other Finches in the act of courtship but no other except the goldfinch turns rapidly first one side and then the other to attract the attention of the ♀, because if they did no beauties would be thus displayed.—

The only other species of the genus Carduelis, the Siskin3 appears to have no antics whatever, but its body is tolerably uniform in coloration, & turn as it might no further attractions would be unfolded.

The Bullfinch4 always turns towards its mate its bright red breast bowing and twisting from side to side its jet black tail in quite a ludicrous manner—

Chaffinches5 also look the hen steadily in the face thus shewing, their blue bills & heads which are thus colored only during the breeding season, and displaying all the beauties of their red breasts, at the same time slightly expanding the wings so that the pure white bands on the shoulders become very conspicuous & contrast well with the other colors.—

The four sober colored species of Linaria viz Cannabina, Minor, Borealis & Montana all shew in the Spring red on their heads & breasts except the last which has the color only above the tail.6 I have however failed to see them make decided use of the color to attract the females, but have no doubt it is so used.—

I have not remarked anything peculiar in the actions of all the other British Finches, nor in the Emberizidæ which are mostly very dull birds except the Reed Bunting (E Schœniclus)7 which is very lively & entertaining & in Spring the ♂ erects the black feathers then appearing on its head & neck.—

Believe me | My Dear Sir | Yours very sincerely.— | J Jenner Weir

C Darwin Esqr.

CD annotations

1.1 You … other colors.— 8.5] crossed pencil
9.1 The … used.— 9.4] opening square bracket blue crayon; crossed blue crayon
10.1 I … neck.— 10.4] crossed pencil
10.2 except … neck.— 10.4] scored blue crayon
Top of letter: ‘C’ blue crayon


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the family name Fringillidae generally referred to finches while Emberizidae referred to buntings (Newton 1893–6, 1: 60–1). In modern systematics, the family Fringillidae (or subfamily Fringillinae) is restricted to Old World finches and their relatives while the subfamily Emberizinae (or tribe Emberizini) generally includes New World finches, sparrows, and buntings (Howard and Moore 1991, Sibley and Monroe 1990).
Carduelis spinus.
Pyrrhula pyrrhula.
Fringilla coelebs.
Linaria cannabina is now Carduelis cannabina, the Eurasian linnet; L. minor is now C. flammea, the lesser or common redpoll; L. borealis is now C. hornemanni, the hoary redpoll; and L. montana is now C. flavirostris, the mountain linnet or twite.
Emberiza schoeniclus.


Newton, Alfred. 1893–6. A dictionary of birds. Assisted by Hans Gadow, with contributions from Richard Lydekker, Charles S. Roy, and Robert W. Shufeldt. 4 parts. London: Adam and Charles Black.


Courtship of goldfinches. Male display. [See Descent 2: 95.]

Letter details

Letter no.
John Jenner Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 53–6
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6005,” accessed on 24 September 2021,

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