skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. J. Weir   20 April 1868

6 Haddo Villas | Blackheath SE

20th April 1868

My Dear Sir

My Brother has sent off several circular letters on your account & proposes to write in a few days to you.—1

In reply to your last, I cannot say that a case of a bird singing itself to death has ever fallen under my notice, but it is very common for a bird in full song to die suddenly without ruffling a feather, this has often occurred in my aviary.—2

My son is now at Dresden in order to learn German perfectly, and thus be better able to keep up his knowledge to an European standard.—

I cannot therefore examine his knee, but can assure you that the resemblance between his scar & mine is perfect.—3

It was long ago that the injury occurred to me but my impression is that, as usual with my flesh, the wound although deep very quickly healed.—

I certainly have all my life derided the idea of “Mothers marks”,4 still if the conclusion in my own mind was not foregone, the facts would have convinced me there must be “something in them”.—

I do differ from Wallace on the point of young birds learning to build from having themselves been reared in nests, but consider with him that the materials used are those most abundant in the haunts of the birds or are most easily obtainable.—5

The reed warbler is tolerably common in some localities near Lewes,6 this bird generally makes its nest from the panicles of the reeds, but on one occasion a large number of sheep were folded close to the reed swamp, & the birds constructed nests almost entirely of wool.—

I have seen Black birds7 in my own garden use large pieces of white paper in their nests.—

I was much struck with your remarks about the Ducks with the white crescentic mark on the breast,8 you are probably unaware that in Sussex Ducks so marked are very common, I have stood by a ponds side & been amazed to observe every duck in some instances so marked, you will observe in several wild species there is a tendency to two colors on the breast, perhaps the uniformity of coloring adverted to may arise from atavism, my Brother who had some so marked thought it was an extension of the white ring of the Mallard. The marks I have observed were lower down than the Mallards ring, occupying the position of the red mark of the Sheldrake.9

Yours very sincerely | J Jenner Weir

CD annotations

1.1 My … them”.— 6.3] crossed pencil
2.1 In reply] opening square bracket pencil
8.1 The reed warbler] opening square bracket pencil
10.1 I was] opening square bracket pencil
10.1 I was … white 10.7] crossed ink; ‘Ducks | Domestic Animals’ added pencil
10.1 crescentic … breast, 10.2] ‘(I was much struck with your remark about the Duck with the white’10 added ink, square bracket in MS
Top of letter: ‘Keep Instinct [underl pencil] & Dom. Animals.’ ink; ‘L’ blue crayon


The reference is to Harrison William Weir. No letter from H. W. Weir mentioning circular letters has been found.
In his letter of 5 April 1868, Weir had told CD that Percy J. Weir had been born with a mark on his knee resembling a scar Weir himself had as the result of an accident.
Weir refers to the popular belief in maternal imagination as the source of various deformities (see letter to J. J. Weir, 18 April [1868] and n. 14).
The reed warbler is now Acrocephalus scirpaceus; Lewes is a town in Sussex.
Turdus merula.
Weir refers to CD’s remarks in Variation 1: 279 and 2: 263 on changes in the appearance of wild ducks subjected to generations of domestication.
The mallard is now Anas platyrhynchos; the shelduck is now Tadorna tadorna.
CD’s annotation appears at the top of the second page of the letter and may indicate that he planned to separate the pages for his research.


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


Instinct in birds; nest-building.

Inheritance of acquired characters.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Jenner Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 181: 76
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6130,” accessed on 27 October 2021,

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