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Darwin Correspondence Project

From F. B. Johnston   9 March 1873


9. March 1873.


Having lately read with great interest your “Descent of Man”; I venture to offer you a few observations thereon: They are probably of little or no importance but such as they are, are very much at your service—

Vol I. P. 20. with regard to persons moving their ears I know a yng. man who can, with no particular distortion of the rest of his face, rapidly move his nose from side to side1

P. 272. Line 3. The Rosy billed Duck (metopiana Peposaca)2 of South America is a strong instance of this: The sexes differ considerably in plumage at maturity but the young male even when quite full grown retains the plumage of the female

In this Species the males I believe considerably exceed the females in number

Vol. 2. P. 58. In the male of the same species the windpipe is very much distended at one point & is there quite rigid & inflexible


In the female there is no distention but a section of the windpipe is rigid. Both sexes utter the same hoarse croak of alarm; but the male does this constantly & the female rarely. I cant say that one croaks louder than the other3

Vol. I. P. 345. I saw a live caterpillar in a bottle in Monte Video which had a red light in its forehead and 5. or 6. green lights down each side— It came from the department of Minas4

Vol. 2. P. 105 A lady of my acquaintance in Cromer had 2. crested parrakeets (Calopsitta Novæ Hollandiæ). As far as could be ascertained there were no others of that kind (in confinement) within many miles, yet one day there appeared a strange one outside the conservatory within which (in a cage) these others were, which was easily caught & kept for some time with the others5

P. 108. Note 9. I keep tame egrets (at home in South america) I sometimes give them live mice. After seizing a mouse the heron always walks off to his bath to dip it before swallowing it. When hungry they will swallow pieces of raw meat greedily but when nearly gorged will continue dipping the same piece as if to make it more palatable6

P. 109. Line 10. I had 2. adult water rails in my aviary   They had been there many months when a very young one was brought to me, which I turned in. One of the old ones regularly adopted it and continued to feed and protect it till it was quite full grown7

P. 203. Line 3. There is a bird in the Banda Oriental exactly like the one figured on P. 202. I never observed any difference of size or plumage among the many I have shot   If it will be of any use to you I will try when I go back there, (in July next), shooting a good many and observe this as also whether it has the convolutions of the trachea.8 These birds breed earlier in the year than any others I know of

P. 205. Line 19. This is the same with the S.A. ostriches. The male is larger, has finer plumes, deeper colors &c but yet incubates9

P. 241. Lines 14. 18. “Capitan” is a misprint for “Capataz”10

For the rest, if I can be of any service to you in observing & reporting on any birds or beasts I may come in contact with, I shall be very happy to follow, as far as I can, any directions you may send me (to care of Messrs. Morewood & Co. 158. Leadenhall St)11 & remain your most obedient servant | Fowell Buxton Johnston

CD annotations

1.1 Having … female 3.3] crossed blue crayon
6.1 Vol. I.... others 7.5] crossed pencil and blue crayon
9.1 P. 109.... grown 9.4] crossed blue crayon
10.2 I never … incubates 11.2] scored blue crayon
12.1 “Capitan”] ‘an’ underl blue crayon
13.1 For … servant 13.4] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘Ostriches | S. Selection Birds | Male Rhea’ pencil


CD had described the rudimentary muscles in humans that in other animals enabled the ears to move in Descent 1: 20–1.
Metopiana peposaca is now Netta peposaca (the rosy-billed pochard).
CD had described the throat-pouches in male grouse and bustard, which are used to make particular sounds during courtship, in Descent 2: 57–8.
CD discussed luminosity in insects briefly in Descent 1: 345 in the context of secondary sexual characteristics but reached no conclusion about its purpose. The department of Minas (now Lavalleja) was an administrative district in south-east Uruguay. The insect described by Johnston was evidently a species of railroad worm, Phrixothrix (Coleoptera: Phengodidae), notable for its two different colours of bioluminescence.
CD gave an account of caged bullfinches attracting wild ones shortly after the death of the caged bird’s mate in Descent 2: 105. Calopsitta novae hollandiae is now Nymphicus hollandicus (the cockatiel).
In Descent 2: 108 n. 9, in an aside on the mental capacity of birds, CD gave an account of a gull soaking its food in water to make it easier to swallow. Johnston had been living in Uruguay since 1866 (Rugby School register). Egrets and herons are birds of the family Ardeidae.
In Descent 2: 109, CD wrote: ‘Birds sometimes exhibit benevolent feelings; they will feed the deserted young even of distinct species; but this perhaps ought to be considered as a mistaken instinct’. The water rail is Rallus aquaticus.
The bird in Descent 2: 202, fig. 60, is the painted snipe, identified there as the Rhynchaea capensis (now Rostratula benghalensis); the females are larger and more brightly coloured than the males. The South American painted snipe is Nycticryphes semicollaris; unlike its Old World relative, it shows little sexual dimorphism, although females are slightly larger. Both genera belong to the family Rostratulidae. CD discussed tracheal elongation in females of Rhynchaea in Descent 2: 202–3. The region that became Uruguay was originally known as Banda Oriental del Río Uruguay (‘east bank of the Uruguay river’), and the country was referred to locally as Banda Oriental into the twentieth century (EB).
In Descent 2: 204–5, CD described African ostriches, in which the males were solely responsible for incubating eggs despite being larger and more brightly coloured than the females; he contrasted this with cassowaries, in which males also incubated eggs but were smaller and more docile than the females. In Descent 2d ed., p. 479 n. 24, CD added the example of the South American rhea to that of the African ostrich, but did not refer to Johnston (Descent 2d ed., p. 479). See also CD annotations. Ostriches, cassowaries, and rheas belong to the order Struthioniformes.
CD had used ‘Capitan’ when quoting a letter from Bartholomew James Sulivan describing a fight between stallions in the Falkland Islands; Sulivan used the word in referring to the person who eventually broke up the fight (see Correspondence vol. 16, letter from B. J. Sulivan, 13 February [1868], where the word is transcribed as ‘Capitain’; it could also be read as ‘Capitan’). The term is unaltered in Descent 2d ed., p. 501. Capataz: foreman (Spanish); Capitán: captain (Spanish).
Morewood & Co. were iron and patent cut nail merchants (Post Office London directory 1873).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

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

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

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.

Rugby School register. 4 vols. Rugby: George Over. 1933–57.


Various observations on sexual selection portion of Descent – ostriches, rosy-billed duck, egrets, rails, etc.

Letter details

Letter no.
F. B Johnston
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 88: 183–4
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8803,” accessed on 22 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21