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Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 145, Issue 4, pp 300–320 | Cite as

Charles Darwin’s bird collection and ornithological knowledge during the voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”, 1831–1836

  • Frank D. Steinheimer
Original Article

Abstract

This paper analyses Charles Darwin’s bird collection and the ornithological knowledge he derived from it during the voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”. Darwin collected 468 bird skins, 10 detached parts of the lesser rhea, and the nests and eggs of 16 different taxa as well as 14 whole birds and 4 parts of birds which he preserved in spirit. He labelled these specimens with a number tag only, cross-referring the number to a notebook entry. Partly because of his limited ornithological knowledge and partly because he was confronted at times with entirely unknown birds, Darwin was often unable to apply the correct generic designations and gave his South American specimens English and Spanish names from literature and the local tongues, as well as the scientific generic names of European birds. Back home, it was John Gould, the prominent ornithologist of the Zoological Society of London, who made sense of Darwin’s collection, among his many other scientific achievements correctly identifying the Galápagos finches as a group of closely related birds. Darwin’s bird collection did not receive much attention in the latter part of the 19th century. Most of the specimens had their original labels removed and replaced by ones of the custodian institution. Today, original Darwin specimens stemming from the “Beagle” voyage are to be found in at least eight different institutions, but almost half of the bird specimens Darwin collected on the “Beagle” voyage are not accounted for. The appendix to this paper lists for the first time all the birds which Darwin collected during the voyage. Darwin’s famous book On the origin of species hardly draws upon any ornithological examples from his voyage on the “Beagle”. Nevertheless, Darwin contributed much to ornithology. His collection contained 39 new species and subspecies of birds, mainly described by Gould, and some birds from populations now extinct, and he also made a few very good field observations, published in the sections of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle dedicated to birds.

Keywords

Bird collection Charles Darwin Ornithology Voyage of the “Beagle” 

Notes

Acknowledgements

Richard Keynes (Cambridge, UK) initiated this study when he came to the Natural History Museum in 1998 to see the bird skins of his great-grandfather for his forthcoming book Charles Darwin’s Zoology Notes & Specimen Lists from H.M.S. Beagle (Keynes 2000). Robert Prŷs-Jones (Head of Bird Group, Natural History Museum, Tring) kindly forwarded Richard’s interesting request to me, giving me the opportunity to research and data-base all known “Beagle” birds, in close co-operation with Richard Keynes and his notebook transcripts. Many thanks also to the following colleagues for comments and a wide range of additional support, from sending me reprints, books, information on birds and data on specimens to giving me access to the collections and literature in their care: Malgosia Atkinson, Ernst Bauernfeind, W.R.P. Bourne, Les Christidis, Paul Cooper, Ann Datta, Barry Davis, René Dekker, Clem Fisher, Alison Harding, Tony Irwin, Les Jessop, Henry McGhie, Bob McGowan, Matthew Jarron, Ingeborg Kilias, Michael Mules, Storrs Olson, Eric Pasquet, Susan Snell, Christine Steinheimer, Ray Symonds, Juan C. Torres-Mura, Julia Voss, Effie Warr, Mic G. Wells and Robin Woods. Thanks also to Phil Rainbow and the Department of Zoology of the Natural History Museum for funding my research in Paris, Norwich, Liverpool and Leiden. Lucy Cathrow discussed linguistic aspects of the paper and I gratefully acknowledge her invaluable advice. I would like to thank Walter Bock, Armin Geus, Gordon Paterson, Robert Prŷs-Jones and Walter Sudhaus for commenting on an earlier draft. Last but not least I would like to thank Franz Bairlein for his patience during the editing process.

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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V.  2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bird Group, Department of ZoologyNatural History MuseumTringUK
  2. 2.Museum für Naturkunde der Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinGermany

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