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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. J. Weir   [26] March 1868

6 Haddo Villas | Blackheath SE

March 1868

My Dear Sir

I have just returned from the Bird Catching Colony, Club Row, & Sclater Street, Brick Lane Spital Fields.—1

The names over the shops shew the descent of the inhabitants from the Huguenots, such names as Le beau Latiff BandoulouQQQQ &c are common.—2

It is very difficult to make the people understand your questions & they often answer wildly.—

I have interrogated the oldest & perhaps most acute bird catcher, now nearly 70 years of age & all his life engaged in the pursuit.—

The Chaffinch he says unhesitatingly has far more Cocks than Hens, he should think 2 ♂ to 1 ♀ or at least 5 ♂ to 3 ♀   he further observed that Chaffinches are “Pegged” in great numbers, by a stuffed bird, with a limed twig just over it, and underneath a concealed male in full song, there are numbers of men at this time of the year so employed; of course they catch nothing but ♂, and one man will take as many as 62 in a single day, yet in spite of this the ♂ are still more numerous, than the ♀ in the proportion stated.3

The chaffinch is one of our most beautiful finches & very lively, “as gay as a chaffinch”, is a common proverb, it therefore appears that his beauty is not without value in “Sexual selection”.—

The dull colored Linnet would appear to have quite an opposite proportion of the sexes.—

The relative numbers he is quite certain vary considerably in different years, he has known the proportion of Cocks to Hens as 1 to 4 but always the Hens very much preponderate.—

In the early part of the season the flocks often consist of nothing but hens, but as the season advances cocks become more plentiful in proportion—

I asked him whether the Bird catchers killed the hens or let them fly, he said they never release them because they fear they would make the cocks more wary.—

He related that on one occasion amongst some Linnets captured at Wanstead was one with an injured leg, he threw this out in front of the shop, this bird was recaught at the same place the next day, was again released and the day after again taken at the old spot.—

This man deals in immense numbers of birds, even a bird so little in demand as the Twite, Linaria Montana, he has sold 100 dozen of this Season, he says the sexes are about equal in this species, but another man Latiff told me, that in a flight of 18 all of which were taken 17 were ♂ & 1 ♀   he considered this exceptional.—

Larks have about equal numbers of the sexes.—

Goldfinches also about equal4

It must be born in mind that the numbers obtained of the common birds are prodigious, there are 13 or 14 Shops & one man told me that he had in the autumn 100 dozen of larks every week

The lark varies but very little   he had never taken but one variety   this he had stuffed   he shewed it me   it had a white back.—

The chaffinch varies very little, sometimes there is a little more white on the shoulder and once he shewed me a ♂ with the plumage of a hen, the only one he had ever seen—

A male chaffinch in very good song, can be swung in a cage round the head & continue singing, such a bird is very valuable for “Pegging”; he shewed me one worth £3.—. —! the common price of a handsome bird is but 6d.—5

It is wonderful how rarely a variety of any common bird is taken, Sparrows I think vary most.

Once one of the bird catchers shewed me a cinnamon Linnet (cannabina)6 & very rarely there is a tendency towards albinism.

If a chaffinch is taken by the “Peggers” another is at the spot in a day or two.—

Nightingales resort to certain Stations, if one is captured its place is supplied in a few days.—

I think you will say this is a dull letter.—

Yours very truly | J Jenner Weir

C. Darwin Esqe.

CD annotations

1.1 I have … common.— 2.2] double crossed blue crayon
3.1 It is … sexes.— 7.2] crossed ink
5.2 he further … song, 5.4] ‘This must be rivalry or jealousy’7 added ink; ‘Yes’ added and circled, blue crayon
5.3 and underneath … song, 5.4] scored pencil; ‘?’ added pencil
8.1 The relative … preponderate.— 8.3] crossed pencil
8.1 vary … years] scored blue crayon
9.1 In the … hens,] scored pencil
9.1 season] ‘ie September’ interl
10.1 I asked … spot.— 11.4] crossed ink
13.1 Larks … equal 14.1] scored pencil
16.1 The lark … back.— 16.2] ‘Variability’ added above blue crayon
16.1 The lark … letter.— 23.1] crossed ink
18.1 A male … 6d.— 18.3] enclosed in square brackets, blue crayon
18.1 A male … valuable 18.2] scored blue crayon
19.1 It is … most. 19.2] scored blue crayon
Top of letter: ‘G’ blue crayon
Top of second sheet: ‘G’ added and circled ink
Top of third sheet: ‘G’ added and circled ink
End of letter: ‘What can be explanation’ pencil


The area around Club Row, Sclater Street, and Brick Lane in Spitalfields in the East End of London was well known for its bird dealers and animal traders. For a slightly later account of the area and its inhabitants, see Williams 1892, pp. 30–44.
The Post Office London directory 1868 lists a bird dealer, Daniel Le Beau, at 166 Church Street, and a bird-cage maker, John Latliff, at 38 Sclater Street; no person named ‘Bandoulou’ is listed in the area.
In Descent 1: 306–7, CD cited Weir for the information on the proportion of sexes in chaffinches and numbers caught. On ‘pegging’, see n. 7, below.
Weir may refer to John Latliff (see above, n. 2). CD added information on the proportion of the sexes in the linnet, twite (Linaria montana, now Carduelis flavirostris), lark, and goldfinch to Descent 1: 307.
In Descent 2: 53, CD mentioned the value of an ordinary bird and a good singer (see also n. 7, below).
In his letter of 11 March 1868, Weir refered to the linnet as Linaria cannabina. In Variation 2: 158, CD referred to it as Linota cannabina; it is now Carduelis cannabina.
In Descent 2: 53, CD mentioned that bird-catchers took advantage of the jealousy excited by singing to catch male birds. He also explained the practice of ‘pegging’ that Weir describes in this letter.


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

Post Office London directory: Post-Office annual directory. … A list of the principal merchants, traders of eminence, &c. in the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent … general and special information relating to the Post Office. Post Office London directory. London: His Majesty’s Postmaster-General [and others]. 1802–1967.

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

Williams, Montagu. 1892. Round London: down east and up west. London: Macmillan & Co.


Proportions of sexes in birds as reported by bird-catchers.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Jenner Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 86: C5–9
Physical description
12pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6056,” accessed on 28 November 2021,

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