Darwin – the birder.
Charles Darwin is famous for his study of birds, in particular the birds (including finches) of the Galapagos. If you know a tiny bit more than that about Darwin, you also may have heard that he knew nothing about birds and totally screwed up his classification of the Darwin finches and had to have it all fixed by others to make any sense at all.
But if you know a bit more about Darwin than that, you’ll know this is an exaggeration at best; Darwin knew a lot about birds and his interest in birds goes back to prior to any of his famous voyaging; Darwin was an avid birder, which in those days required, rather than an excellent pair of binoculars, a well maintained and reliable shotgun. Also, Darwin bred birds and studied “artificial selection” in part through the study of breeding of chickens and pigeons.
Then, if you have investigated Darwin’s works even more, so you get beyond the stories in the intro text books an the complaints on the anti-Darwin creationist web sites, you’ll know that Darwin managed the publication of a major monograph on birds, which relied heavily on the expertise of the leading bird experts of his day (as all of his post-Voyage monographs rely on the knowledge of various experts). Darwin had a lot to do with birds, including and beyond the Galapagos finches, and he knew lots of stuff about birds, and although I tend to think of Darwin more as a geologist (I know, I know, lots of people get mad at me when I say that) and in respect to living things he wrote much more about life forms without feathers (such as orchids, worms, and many insects) he, like any good 19th century “Renaissance man,” was diverse in his interest. He knew birds.
I’d like to take a little bit of space on the Internet, in the form of blog posts at this very location, to explore and expose selected aspects of Darwin’s interest in and relationship to birds. He hunted birds, he stuffed birds, he studied birds, he lied about birds, he figured out evolution because a little (clade of) bird(s) told him, and he said things about birds that serve today as a kind of 19th century ethnography of the relationship between the cultural world of the naturalist and the natural world of Aves.
I’ve collected a number of references to birds in Darwin’s writings, or in the writings of those with whom he worked, who were influenced by him, or those who were part of his orbit. I’ll start next week with something on Condors, later do something on Rheas, later still his observations of various sea-birds, his theories of bird-plant co-evolution, and so on and so forth for several weeks. Mainly, I want to give you an edited-down (for brevity) sample of Darwin’s writing on birds, with some context and commentary initially by me, then hopefully, in the comments, by you. We will get bored with the topic before we run out of things to look at because Darwin was prolific and birds are everywhere in his writings.
See you next week.
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