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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Osbert Salvin   20 June 1868

16 The Grove | Boltons | S.W.

20 June 1868.—

My dear Sir,

I must apologize for so long having delayed sending you the enclosed answers to your queries.1 I hope I have answered them to your satisfaction   I have not in every case been able to ascertain the exact numbers of the specimens from which I drew my notes as to the relative proportions of the sexes of the Humming birds but you will see in the list I send where this information has not been supplied.—

Humming birds fight a great deal but I never saw one kill another.—2

If there is any point which I have not answered in the questions you put me, I am quite ready to be put in the “witness box again & be cross-questioned.

yrs very truly | Osbert Salvin.

[Enclosure 1]

I came across an old observation the other day which may interest you. I once shot in Norway a Common Sandpiper the nail of the hind toe of which was clasped by a bivalve freshwater shell. A suggestive mode of an accidental means of dispersal.

[Enclosure 2]

1 Trogon mexicanus is quite a distinct species from Calurus resplendens (or as it ought to be called Pharomacrus mocinno) & has no elongated tail coverts3   The only positive evidence about the breeding of Ph. mocinno I was ever able to obtain is published in the Ibis for 1861, p. 66. A friend of mine Mr R. Owen was informed of a nest in the forests near which he was staying & he sent his servant to see after it who brought back two eggs & the hen bird   The eggs were in a hole in a decayed tree to which there was only one entrance. There were no signs of a nest beyond a layer of small chips of decayed wood on which the eggs were laid.—4

The bird is not found in Mexico & I never heard that DeSaussure visited Guatemala & my own belief is that the story of the male sitting with its tail hanging out of one hole & looking out of another is imaginary & that very probably the male bird does not sit at all.5 I once however took a nest of T. mexicanus which was in a hole of a tree out of which the male bird flew.

2. Since I described Chamæpetes unicolor I have received a female specimen which has the wing primaries cut but not quite so much as in the male, and I have noticed that a very young example of Aburria carunculata has the same feature to a slight degree so that this character must not be ascribed to the males alone. I, however, only observed the males making the strange noise I described in P.Z.S.6

1st Primary of Chamæpetes unicolor



It may be worthy of your notice that I do not think that the noise made by Penelope nigra was produced by the ordinary process of flight when passing from one tree to another   it struck me as if it was done “on purpose” just as a snipe “drums” at certain seasons.7

3. The males only of Selasphorus platycercus have the excised primary (1st only)


neither the females Nor the young males in their first plumage possess this character. My attention was first attracted to the noise when observing a male which used to make periodical visits to some flowers in a court yard   the sound was not produced when hovering but in changing position from flower to flower & especially when flying out of the yard over the wall. It did not strike me that the sound was intentionally made to attract the attention of the females.8

4. Both sexes of the S American genera of Pigeons Peristera and Leptoptila. have the primaries excised but though they make a whistling noise when they fly I did not observe that sound was greater than that produced by other species of Pigeons which have not got this character.9

[Enclosure 3]

total no collected
Phaethornis adolphi—10 7 2 9.
Campylopterus hemileucurus 20 8 28.
Petasophora delphino.—11 9 2 11.
x Eugenes fulgens— 18 1 19
Myiabeilla typica—12 20 1 21.
x Thaumastura henicura.—13 6 10 16
Trochilus colubris Dueñas uncertain
proportion stated 1♂:4♀
Coban14 8 8 16.
Lophornis helenæ.— 17 1 18.
Amazillia rufferi—15 7 0 7
" devillii—16 uncertain
proportion given 4♂:1♀
Thaumantias candidus—17 30 6 36.
Eupherusa eximia— 30 9 39.

[Enclosure 4]

x Eugenes fulgens

During my subsequent stay in Guatemala18 I observed another female but only one so that of this species two females only came under observation though I was constantly on the look out for them in districts where the males abounded. Of the males I must have seen dozens as at certain seasons they were very abundant.—

x Thaumastura henicura   I find I made the following note respecting this species when I noted the first male specimen obtained. “Though I have, perhaps, shot as many as twenty females of this species this is the first male I have killed. It is however not uncommon.” I afterwards found a small colony of males some 6 or 7 of which searched the flowers of a row of willow trees.–

CD annotations

0.3 My dear Sir, … supplied.— 1.5] crossed pencil
2.1 Humming … another.—] enclosed in square brackets pencil
3.1 If … cross-questioned. 3.2] crossed pencil
Enclosure 1
Top of enclosure: ‘Distribution’ red crayon
Bottom of enclosure: ‘Osbert Salvin | June 20th/68/’ ink; ‘Flamingo with Barnacle | Dyticus with Ancylus—’19 pencil
Enclosure 2
Next to first drawing: ‘Indian Bustard’ pencil
Above para. 5 (3. The males only …): ‘To be drawn—feathers shaded with barbs’ ink; ‘Is this account enough to engrave from’20 pencil
5.2 Nor the young males … character.] double scored pencil
Below para. 5: ‘Please return the paper.—’ ink
Enclosure 3
Top of enclosure: ‘Humming Birds’ pencil
Line 6 of table: ‘6 10’: ringed pencil
Bottom of table: ‘10 [sp]’; ‘166’ pencil, foot of ♂ column; ‘38’ pencil, foot of ♀ column; ‘38204ink, beneath ‘166’


See Robert Owen 1861. Owen (who has not been further identified) referred to Pharomachrus mocinno, the resplendent quetzal, as Pharomacrus paradiseus. In this article, which contained comments by Salvin, Salvin remarked that he believed that the story of the bird nesting in a hole that passed through a tree was a myth, and that the male never sat on the eggs.
Salvin refers to Henri Louis Frédéric de Saussure. See letter to Osbert Salvin, 1 June 1868 and n. 3.
Chamaepetes unicolor is the black guan. CD referred to the male’s modified wing in Descent 2: 64. Salvin also refers to Salvin 1867, p. 160. See letter to Osbert Salvin, 1 June 1868 and n. 4. The name ‘Aburria carunculata’ has not been found; Salvin may have meant Crax carunculata, now C. globulosa, the wattled currasow (see G. R. Gray 1849 and Birds of the world 2: 361). Crax and Aburria are both members of the family Cracidae.
See letter to Osbert Salvin, 1 June 1868 and n. 4. Penelope nigra is now Penelopina nigra.
CD cited Salvin 1867, p. 160, on the noise made in flight by Selasphorus platycercus (the broad-tailed humming-bird), in Descent 2: 65; he included sketches and information from this letter.
See letter to Osbert Salvin, 1 June 1868 and n. 6. Peristera is no longer a recognised genus name: former members of Peristera are now distributed among a number of other genera (see Birds of the world 4: 113–81). Peristera was an Australian, not South American, genus (Swainson 1836–7, 2: 349).
Phaethornis adolphi: Boucard’s hermit, or the dusky hermit.
Petasophora delphinae: now Colibri delphinae, the brown violet-ear humming-bird (Elliot 1879, p. 52).
Myiabeillia typica: now Abeillia abeillei (Elliot 1879, p. 184), the emerald-chinned humming-bird.
Possibly Thaumastura cora, the Peruvian sheartail humming-bird.
Dueñas (San Miguel Dueñas) is a town and Cóban a city in central Guatemala (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
Amazilia riefferi or Amazilia fuscicaudatus, now Amazilia tzacatl, Rieffer’s humming-bird or the rufous-tailed humming-bird (Elliot 1879, Birds of the world 5: 595.)
Amazilia dumerillii: now Amazilia amazilia dumerilii (Birds of the world 5: 595).
Now Agyrtria candida (Elliot 1879, p. 203), the white-bellied emerald humming-bird.
Salvin 1860 was based on observations made by Salvin in Guatemala in 1859; he returned to Guatemala between 1861 and 1863 (ODNB).
CD’s notes are for his letter to Salvin of 23 June [1868].
Engravings made from Salvin’s sketches are in DAR 84.2: 83 and 84. See n. 8, above.


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

Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

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

Elliot, Daniel Giraud. 1879. A classification and synopsis of the Trochilidae. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Salvin, Osbert. 1860. Notes on the humming-birds of Guatemala. Ibis 2: 259–72.

Salvin, Osbert. 1867. On some collections of birds from Veragua. [Read 24 January 1867.] Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1867): 129–61.

Swainson, William. 1836–7. On the natural history and classification of birds. 2 vols. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman; John Taylor.


Shot a sandpiper in Norway, the hind toe of which was clasped by a freshwater bivalve.

Sends replies to CD’s queries about sex ratios in humming-birds.

Letter details

Letter no.
Osbert Salvin
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 18, DAR 205.3: 288 (Letters), DAR 84.2: 79-82, 85–6, DAR 86: C22, C24
Physical description
2pp † encl 8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6253,” accessed on 24 September 2021,

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