Birds Feared Darwin

The image of a peacock is from A History of British Birds, Volume I (On Land Birds).

by GregLaden on July 22, 2011 · 1 comment

in Bird Research

If Darwin was alive today he would be a bird watcher. But he would do his bird watching differently, using a nice set of binoculars rather than a shotgun. In his autobiography, Darwin reminisces

In the latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of shooting, and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How well I remember killing my first snipe, and my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands. This taste long continued and I became a very good shot. When at Cambridge I used to practise throwing up my gun to my shoulder before a looking-glass to see that I threw it up straight. Another and better plan was to get a friend to wave about a lighted candle, and then to fire at it with a cap on the nipple, and if the aim was accurate the little puff of air would blow out the candle. The explosion of the cap caused a sharp crack, and I was told that the Tutor of the College remarked, “What an extraordinary thing it is, Mr Darwin seems to spend hours in cracking a horse-whip in his room, for I often hear the crack when I pass under his windows.”

(Those of you who have read Doyle’s Holmes may wonder if there is a connection with the indoor shooting range!)

I became acquainted with the curator of the museum, Mr. Macgillivray,1 who afterwards published a large and excellent book on the birds of Scotland. He had not much the appearance or manners of the gentleman. I had much interesting natural-history talk with him, and he was very kind to me. He gave me some rare shells, for I at that time collected marine mollusca, but with no great zeal.

My summer vacations during these two years were wholly given up to amusements, though I always had some book in hand, which I read with interest. … The autumns were devoted to shooting, chiefly at Mr. Owen’s at Woodhouse, and at my Uncle Jos’s1, at Maer. My zeal was so great that I used to place my shooting boots open by my bed-side when I went to bed, so as not to lose half-a-minute in putting them on in the morning; and on one occasion I reached a distant part of the Maer estate on the 20th of August for black-game shooting, before I could see: I then toiled on with the gamekeeper the whole day through thick heath and young Scotch firs. I kept an exact record of every bird which I shot throughout the whole season. One day when shooting at Woodhouse with Captain Owen, the eldest son and Major Hill, his cousin, afterwards Lord Berwick, both of whom I liked very much, I thought myself shamefully used, for every time after I had fired and thought that I had killed a bird, one of the two acted as if loading his gun and cried out, “You must not count that bird, for I fired at the same time,” and the gamekeeper perceiving the joke, backed them up. After some hours they told me the joke, but it was no joke to me for I had shot a large number of birds, but did not know how many, and could not add them to my list, which I used to do by making a knot in a piece of string tied to a button-hole. This my wicked friends had perceived. How I did enjoy shooting, but I think that I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal, for I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment; it required so much skill to judge where to find most game and to hunt the dogs well.

And then there was this:

I was very fond of collecting eggs, but I never took more than a single egg out of a bird’s nest, except on one single occasion, when I took all, not for their value, but from a sort of bravado.

Darwin was not, however, entirely heartless. And, my assertion that he’d be a birder today is not a wild guess, but rather based on his own words:

I almost made up my mind to begin collecting all the insects which I could find dead, for on consulting my sister, I concluded that it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a collection. From reading White’s Selborne I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.

The text from which Darwin is quoted above is Barlow, Nora ed. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins.

The image of a peacock is from A History of British Birds, Volume I (On Land Birds).

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Russell Turpin July 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm

If Darwin were alive today, would the Time Lords bring us the teenage schoolboy, or the middle-aged scientist? It seems clear to me that Darwin as a youth enjoyed bird hunting for the sport, not just because of his naturalist interests. And were the 17 year-old Darwin teleported into our time, he likely would be amazed by modern guns and eager to try them in the field. 

Or maybe he would succumb to video games. The slightly older Darwin, yes, he would be a birder. He was a birder. And would be more interested in modern binoculars than modern guns. And fascinated by how far biology has come since his day. 


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