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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. J. Weir   16 March 1868

6 Haddo Villas | Blackheath SE

16 March 1868

My Dear Sir

Since my last my Brother has had a long conversation with me about sexual selection in pigeons.—1

We are both decidedly of opinion that color has little to do with sexual selection in the common pigeon, at the same time it should be noted that the only brilliant colors are found in the iridescent neck, and this the male, as we all know inflates and displays when courting, and the success of his antics in this respect is so great in some birds of very erotic temperament, or what the fanciers call “gay”, that it often is requisite to shut up such a lively male because of the mischief done to the strain amongst the hens to which he is not paired.—2

My Brother further observed that although the pigeons usually pair for life, a very short absence only is necessary to cause them to forget each other, how short he could not say, but when the ♂ & ♀ are separated for a few weeks during the winter in order to pair them differently for the next season, as universally practised by the best fanciers, they rarely if ever recognize each other again; the pairs differently assorted remain as the owner intends them.—

This is curious because the birds will return to the place from which they have been taken even after a period of nine months.—

Thus their memory will last for nine months in one case, but is quite lost in two months in another.—3

In your last note you mentioned the Drake,4 this bird has during the breeding season only a very brilliant green head and neck, when courting it is certainly turned to the best advantage, the head is moved rapidly up and down, vulgarly the head is bobbed quickly; at the same time the Drake swims by the side of the duck, but I do not like to go so far as to say that the speculum on the wing is displayed more than usual, indeed I am inclined to think the latter ornament has some other use, it is nearly as bright in the ♀ as the ♂.

I have seen the wigeon in Spring when the flame like color has appeared on the forehead, lay his head down quite close to the water below the head of the ♀, this appears to me to be a case of sexual display.—5

When you asked whether other birds beside the Gallinaceæ were polygamous, I presume you had not forgotten the Ruff (Machetes pugnax);6 it is most remarkable that in such a very dull colored group as the Tringidæ and the allied family Scolopacidæ,7 that the only polygamous species (I believe) should have such marvellous nuptial appendages as the ♂ pugnax, small wart like wattles, and large hackles capable of being erected like a Gallus.—8

I have seen the ♂ fight & the attitude was precisely that of a Game Cock, often looking at each other without moving & then suddenly renewing the encounter.— the color of the hackles varies so very much that the tastes of all the hens might be satisfied.

I hope soon to write about the experiments I made last year with caterpillars, but enough for the present.—9

It will give me great pleasure to visit you at Down whenever your health will permit.10

Yours very sincerely | J Jenner Weir

C Darwin Esq.

CD annotations

1.1 Since … pigeons.— 1.2] crossed pencil
2.1 We … iridescent neck 2.3] crossed ink
2.3 and this … paired.— 2.7]crossed blue crayon
3.1 My … in another.— 5.2] crossed ink
6.3 the head … sexual display.— 7.3] crossed pencil
8.1 When … satisfied. 9.4] crossed blue crayon
10.1 I hope … permit. 11.2] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘D’ blue crayon
Top of 2d sheet: ‘D’ blue crayon


See letter from J. J. Weir, 11 March 1868. Weir’s brother was Harrison Weir.
CD cited Harrison Weir for this information on male pigeons in Descent 2: 119.
Harrison Weir’s information on memory in pigeons is mentioned in Descent 2: 109.
Weir refers to Mareca penelope, the European wigeon. Although CD discussed breeding in wigeons in Descent 2: 114–15, he did not mention Weir’s observation.
See letter to J. J. Weir, 29 February [1868]. The family Gallinaceae or Gallinae of older taxonomic systems included chicken or fowl-like birds (Newton 1893–6). The ruff, Machetes pugnax, is now Philomachus pugnax (family Scolopacidae). CD discussed the polygamy of the ruff in Descent 1: 270 and 2: 41–2.
The Tringidae and Scolopacidae were families of shorebirds that included snipes and sandpipers; these birds are now all in the family Scolopacidae.
CD discussed the plumage of the ruff in Descent 2: 81, 84. Gallus is the genus which includes the domestic fowl or chicken.


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

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.


Sexual selection of pigeons, ducks;

polygamous birds.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Jenner Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 57–60
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6016,” accessed on 29 November 2021,

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