The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 137 of 188

Charles Darwin to W.D. Fox.

Down, May 7th [1855].

My dear Fox,

My correspondence has cost you a deal of trouble, though this note will not. I found yours on my return home on Saturday after a week’s work in London. Whilst there I saw Yarrell, who told me he had carefully examined all points in the Call Duck, and did not feel any doubt about it being specifically identical, and that it had crossed freely with common varieties in St. James’s Park. I should therefore be very glad for a seven-days’ duckling and for one of the old birds, should one ever die a natural death. Yarrell told me that Sabine had collected forty varieties of the common duck!…Well, to return to business; nobody, I am sure, could fix better for me than you the characteristic age of little chickens; with respect to skeletons, I have feared it would be impossible to make them, but I suppose I shall be able to measure limbs, etc., by feeling the joints. What you say about old cocks just confirms what I thought, and I will make my skeletons of old cocks. Should an old wild turkey ever die, please remember me; I do not care for a baby turkey, nor for a mastiff. Very many thanks for your offer. I have puppies of bull-dogs and greyhound in salt, and I have had cart-horse and race-horse young colts carefully measured. Whether I shall do any good I doubt. I am getting out of my depth.

Most truly yours,
C. Darwin.

[An extract from a letter to Mr. Fox may find a place here, though of a later date, viz. July, 1855:

“Many thanks for the seven days’ old white Dorking, and for the other promised ones. I am getting quite a ‘chamber of horrors,’ I appreciate your kindness even more than before; for I have done the black deed and murdered an angelic little fantail and pouter at ten days old. I tried chloroform and ether for the first, and though evidently a perfectly easy death, it was prolonged; and for the second I tried putting lumps of cyanide of potassium in a very large damp bottle, half an hour before putting in the pigeon, and the prussic acid gas thus generated was very quickly fatal.”

A letter to Mr. Fox (May 23rd, 1855) gives the first mention of my father’s laborious piece of work on the breeding of pigeons:

“I write now to say that I have been looking at some of our mongrel chickens, and I should say one week old would do very well. The chief points which I am, and have been for years, very curious about, is to ascertain whether the young of our domestic breeds differ as much from each other as do their parents, and I have no faith in anything short of actual measurement and the Rule of Three. I hope and believe I am not giving so much trouble without a motive of sufficient worth. I have got my fantails and pouters (choice birds, I hope, as I paid 20 shillings for each pair from Baily) in a grand cage and pigeon-house, and they are a decided amusement to me, and delight to H.”

In the course of my father’s pigeon-fancying enterprise he necessarily became acquainted with breeders, and was fond of relating his experiences as a member of the Columbarian and Philoperistera Clubs, where he met the purest enthusiasts of the “fancy,” and learnt much of the mysteries of their art. In writing to Mr. Huxley some years afterwards, he quotes from a book on ‘Pigeons’ by Mr. J. Eaton, in illustration of the “extreme attention and close observation” necessary to be a good fancier.

“In his [Mr. Eaton’s] treatise, devoted to the Almond Tumbler alone, which is a sub-variety of the short-faced variety, which is a variety of the Tumbler, as that is of the Rock-pigeon, Mr. Eaton says: ‘There are some of the young fanciers who are over-covetous, who go for all the five properties at once [i.e., the five characteristic points which are mainly attended to,–C.D.], they have their reward by getting nothing.’ In short, it is almost beyond the human intellect to attend to all the excellencies of the Almond Tumbler!

“To be a good breeder, and to succeed in improving any breed, beyond everything enthusiasm is required. Mr. Eaton has gained lots of prizes, listen to him.

“‘If it was possible for noblemen and gentlemen to know the amazing amount of solace and pleasure derived from the Almond Tumbler, when they begin to understand their (i.e., the tumbler’s) properties, I should think that scarce any nobleman or gentleman would be without their aviaries of Almond Tumblers.'”

My father was fond of quoting this passage, and always with a tone of fellow-feeling for the author, though, no doubt, he had forgotten his own wonderings as a child that “every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.”–(‘Autobiography,’ page 32.)

To Mr. W.B. Tegetmeier, the well-known writer on poultry, etc., he was indebted for constant advice and co-operation. Their correspondence began in 1855, and lasted to 1881, when my father wrote: “I can assure you that I often look back with pleasure to the old days when I attended to pigeons, fowls, etc., and when you gave me such valuable assistance. I not rarely regret that I have had so little strength that I have not been able to keep up old acquaintances and friendships.” My father’s letters to Mr. Tegetmeier consist almost entirely of series of questions relating to the different breeds of fowls, pigeons, etc., and are not, therefore interesting. In reading through the pile of letters, one is much struck by the diligence of the writer’s search for facts, and it is made clear that Mr. Tegetmeier’s knowledge and judgment were completely trusted and highly valued by him. Numerous phrases, such as “your note is a mine of wealth to me,” occur, expressing his sense of the value of Mr. Tegetmeier’s help, as well as words expressing his warm appreciation of Mr. Tegetmeier’s unstinting zeal and kindness, or his “pure and disinterested love of science.” On the subject of hive-bees and their combs, Mr. Tegetmeier’s help was also valued by my father, who wrote, “your paper on ‘Bees-cells,’ read before the British Association, was highly useful and suggestive to me.”

To work out the problems on the Geographical Distributions of animals and plants on evolutionary principles, he had to study the means by which seeds, eggs, etc., can be transported across wide spaces of ocean. It was this need which gave an interest to the class of experiment to which the following letters allude.]

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