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


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.

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  1. The term ‘Darwin’s finches’ was first used by Lowe 1936 (cited in Sulloway 1982b, p. 45) and established by Lack (1961, p. 14), with the argument that “the term ‘Galapagos finch’ is less satisfactory, since one species, namely Pinaroloxias inornata, occurs not in the Galapagos, but on Cocos Island [...].” In fact, Darwin himself had only encountered some of the finch species. In this paper, both Galápagos finches and Darwin’s finches are used, according to prevailing usage.

  2. H.M.S. stands for His Majesty’s Ship (more exactly Surveying Sloop; cf. Bourne 1992). The ‘”Beagle”’ was built in 1820 and named after the dog. The ship had already been used for a previous voyage to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia in 1826–1830 before Darwin’s famous ‘Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”’. Any use of the term ‘Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”’ in this paper always refers to this latter, second journey of the “Beagle”.

  3. The version Darwin consulted was the English translation of the Italian original (cf. Sulloway 1982b). The taxonomically important first descriptions of birds are found in Molina (1782).

  4. The references to Azara (1802–1805) in Darwin’s notebooks and Gould and Darwin (1838, 1839a, 1839b, 1839c) and Gould et al. (1841) were added after the voyage (Sulloway 1982c).

  5. See Appendix: ‘Charles Darwin’s bird collection from the voyage of the H.M.S. “Beagle”’ at, ‘journals ‘– Supplementary information to published papers.

  6. Darwin noted about Maldonado: “My collection of the birds [...] of this place is becoming very perfect” (Darwin in Barlow 1933, p. 153).

  7. See Barlow 1963, p. 278: added after the journey.

  8. Added after the voyage.

  9. See Barlow 1963, p. 211: added after 7th September 1835, during or after the voyage.

  10. Darwin correctly identified Furnarius rufus to species level.

  11. Myothera is normally synonymised with Pteroptochos albicollis (in Wytsman 1905–1914, fide J. Torres-Mura, personal communication, April 2004), but Sulloway (1982c) synonymized Myothera with all species of Pteroptochos.

  12. Today the Chilean people call Pteroptochos tarnii ‘huez-huez.’

  13. The call of this species could be seen as similar to the ‘barking’ of a very small dog in a high voice; another Chilean bird, the black-necked stilt Himantopus mexicanus has also a ‘barking’ call, as already noted by Darwin as well (Barlow 1963, p. 217).

  14. Darwin wrote in Gould et al. 1841, p. 106 that the name of the country would derive from the song of Agelaius thilius, which is indeed one of the theories as to where Chile got its name from (J. Torres-Mura, personal communication, April 2004).

  15. Subsequent authors (Steinmüller and Steinmüller 1987, p. 153) still referred to the tinamous in Darwin’s words, as grey partridges.

  16. The ornithological notes had been compiled between 12 April–19 July 1836 (Sulloway 1982c).

  17. For any museum’s abbreviation see Appendix.

  18. The Zoological Society labels recorded the donor’s name, the acquisition date and Darwin’s specimen numbers: front “C. Darwin Esq. Jan 4 1837”, back (number); but most of these labels were also replaced.

  19. The species does, however, occur along the east coast to the top of Tierra del Fuego.

  20. The first issue (pp. 1–16, pls. 1–10) of the bird section of Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle” was apparently published in July 1838, the second (pp. 17–32, pls. 11–20) in January 1839, the third (pp. 33–56, pls. 21–30) in July 1839, the fourth (pp. 57–96, pls. 31–40) in November 1839, the fifth (pp. 97–164, pls. 41–50) in March 1841 (Burkhardt and Smith 1986, vol. 2, pp. 432–437; Zimmer 1926, p. 159).

  21. Strickland et al.: Report of a committee appointed “to consider of the rules by which the nomenclature of zoology may be established on a uniform and permanent basis.” Report of the 12th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Manchester 1842:105–121 (cited in Burkhardt and Smith 1986, vol. 2, p. 500). Darwin was much in favour of referring the species name to the first author, but not to the author of any new combination.

  22. G.R. Gray also described Tyto alba punctatissima (G.R. Gray in Gould and Darwin 1839b, pp 34–35), but the description had been based on a specimen of Captain FitzRoy’s collection.

  23. Three new Chilean taxa are based on Darwin’s collection: Caprimulgus longirostris bifasciatus Gould 1837c: Valparaiso; Melanodera xanthogramma xanthogramma (Gray in Gould and Darwin 1839c): Tierra del Fuego and on Falkland Islands; Ochthocea parvirostris (Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839b): Valparaiso and Santa Cruz, Argentina.

  24. Following Jaksic and Lazo (1994), Darwin made notes of about 40 Chilean species out of 440, and added 11 new country records.

  25. Aimophila strigiceps strigiceps (Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839c): Santa Fé; Agriornis microptera microptera Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839c: Patagonia; Agriornis montana leucura Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839c: Port Desire; Asthenes pyrrholeuca flavogularis (Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839c): Patagonia; Buteo ventralis Gould 1837b: Santa Cruz; Caprimulgus parvulus parvulus Gould 1837c: Santa Fé; Coturnicops notata notata (Gould in Gould et al. 1841): Rio de la Plata; Eremobius phoenicurus Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839c: Patagonia; Myiophobus fasciatus auriceps (Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839b): Buenos Ayres; Ochthocea parvirostris (Gould in Gould and Darwin 1839b): Santa Cruz and Valparaiso, Chile; Phalcoboenus megalopterus albogularis Gould 1837b: Santa Cruz.

  26. King’s birds are mainly housed in the BMNH collection. See d’Orbigny and Gervais (1835–1847) for details of d’Orbigny’s collection.

  27. Ammodramus humeralis xanthornus Gould, 1839; Limnoctites rectirostris (Gould, 1839); Limnornis curvirostris Gould, 1839.

  28. Ammomanes cincturus cincturus (Gould, 1839); Eremopterix nigriceps nigriceps (Gould, 1839); Passer iagoensis iagoensis (Gould, 1837).

  29. Although contested by Warren and Harrison (1971) and Sulloway (1982a, 1982b, 1982c), only Darwin’s specimens were used in Gould’s first descriptions, and therefore only these specimens can be considered types of the Geospizinae (Galápagos finches). If birds collected by such a high-ranking person as a Captain of the Royal Navy had been available, this would have been mentioned in Gould’s publication. Darwin travelled as private and self-financed naturalist on the “Beagle” and was free to dispose of his specimens as he liked. FitzRoy, an employee of the Navy, was more restricted. He gave, probably on order by Sir William Burnett (1779–1861), the physician-general of the navy, his bird collection to the BMNH on 21 February 1837, where they did not get the same attention accorded to Darwin’s at the Zoological Society. Sulloway (1982a) claims that Gould also used a Geospiza specimen from Fuller’s collection, which was given to him by Eyton. However, there is no correspondence to corroborate this, and it is therefore believed that the missing taxon was not in Eyton’s collection, but was among those of Darwin’s Geospiza specimens not traced. Darwin later communicated the locality data relating to the collections of FitzRoy and other shipmates to John Gould, and it is even assumed that Gould later saw FitzRoy’s birds in the BMNH, but as there is no reference to FitzRoy in Gould’s first description, any other Galápagos finches than those of Darwin can be at best seen as Paratypes (cf. Gould 1837a).

  30. Sulloway (1982b) raises the possibility that Darwin’s birds did not come from these two islands at all, but from San Salvador (James) Island. Still, there is no bird with such an enlarged beak anywhere in the Galápagos Islands today.

  31. On 6–8 July 1998, a resident of the Falkland Islands, Lynda Anderson, probably saw two birds of this species on San Carlos, East Falkland (R. Woods, personal communication, April 2004, cited from a fax to Hay Miller, July 1998). However, there is no evidence that the species is still resident in the Falklands (Woods 1988; R. Woods, personal communication, April 2004).

  32. It seems conclusive that Darwin indeed collected a specimen of that species on the Falkland Islands (Keynes 2000, p. 385, Darwin No. 1144, see Appendix). However, the bird was more likely to be a rare vagrant from mainland South America than a breeding bird on the Falklands, which was what Darwin first believed (in Gould and Darwin 1839c, p. 74; cf. Woods 1988, p. 213). Darwin might have confused the nests of Cistothorus platensis (W.R.P. Bourne, personal communication, February 2000; R. Woods, personal communication, April 2004).

  33. It has to be stated, though, that the largest series of any one and the same species numbers just six individuals (cf. also Sulloway 1982c).

  34. Darwin had a very small cabin under the forecastle at his disposal for storing specimens (Porter 1985, p. 986).

  35. Darwin made some additional field notes on birds not collected (cf. Darwin 1839; Jaksic and Lazo 1994).

  36. Corrections of the total number of Darwin’s avian specimens have been made since Steinheimer (2003).

  37. During the voyage, Darwin prepared rough bird skins, just like the ones known as study skins in modern museum collections. He always applied arsenical soap on the skins, and a corrosive sublimate on the beaks and legs (Darwin 1839, pp. 600–601). Darwin stuffed the specimens with dry grass or moss and left the incision un-sewn. Back home, the larger proportion of the birds presented to the Zoological Society Museum and all of those given to the BMNH before 1857 (see below) were immediately mounted for display purposes. Nevertheless, several dozen original skins of Darwin have survived.

  38. Since his return Darwin would have met Eyton personally at the latest towards the end of 1837 (Burkhardt and Smith 1986, vol. 2, pp. 54, 64), but it is believed that by then he had already sent the skin specimens to Shropshire, where Eyton lived. It is equally possible that the two met during the previous winter (December 1836 to March 1837) in Cambridge. Later, in November 1839, Darwin forwarded the specimens in spirit, numbered 388, 630, 650, 707, 721, 722, 728, 1037, 1043, 1050, 1157, 1309 (‘Specimens in spirits of wine’) and two unnumbered items, altogether 14 whole birds (cf. Keynes 2000; Burkhardt and Smith 1986, vol. 2, pp. 243–244). It is likely that Darwin had also sent the four parts of birds to Eyton numbered 620 (tongue of woodpecker), 576 and 577 (tracheae of ducks, ‘specimens in spirits of wine’) and 3362 (stomach contents of flamingo, ‘specimens not in spirits’).

  39. It was always believed that this duck came from the Falkland Islands, but Darwin did not collect any duck during his two visits to East Falkland (cf. Barlow 1963; Keynes 2000). The anatomical specimens might have been forwarded to the Royal College of Surgeons as suggested by Darwin in a letter to Eyton on 6 January 1840 (Burkhardt and Smith 1986, vol. 2, pp. 249–250).

  40. The Morning Herald, London, from 12 January 1837, p. 5, reported that Darwin presented 450 bird specimens to the Zoological Society of London on 4 January 1837. The number might be correct considering that Eyton received at least 12, but perhaps even 18, specimens of Darwin’s 468 bird skins.

  41. Sulloway (1982b, p. 20) cited an unpublished minute of the Council of the Zoological Society, which recorded that the Society had received Darwin’s “Beagle” birds on that date, accompanied by a letter in which Darwin asked the Society to dispose of any duplicate specimens, and to mount and describe the rest.

  42. In Burkhardt and Smith (1986, vol. 2, p. 196) the letter is dated from June-October 1839, but the BMNH had already received the specimen in question in early August.

  43. Specimens of Baron Guillaume Michel Jerome Meiffren-Laugier de Chartrouse (1772–1843), cited on the BMNH labels and in the BMNH registers as deriving from Darwin (cf. Steinheimer 2003), are more likely birds from the collections of René Primevère Lesson, Prosper Garnot or Alcide Charles Victor Marie d’Orbigny, which tends to be confirmed by matching Darwin’s field numbers and the number of available specimens.

  44. E.g., Sulloway (1982b, p. 40) reported that the next person to collect on the Galápagos Islands was Dr. A. Habel, shooting 460 specimens in 1868, followed by many others.

  45. Confusion occurred mainly because Darwin referred to the Galápagos finches in the second edition of his Journal of Research (Darwin 1845).

  46. This and all further quotations are also found in the 1859 edition, though differently worded (cf. Darwin 1859, pp. 402, 48, 390, 183, 184, 184–185, 243, 349)

  47. For example, the observation on hybrids of his distinguished friend Eyton, that: “amongst birds, species originally coming from distant parts of the world, are more likely to breed together, than those from nearer countries” (Burkhardt and Smith 1986, vol. 2, p. 181; Eyton 1837, p. 359: cited ibid. 182, footnote 5) made clear to Darwin that, in general terms, hybrids are less well adapted than the parent species, so that, where the overlapping of species occurs, natural selection avoids hybrids, whereas bird populations at a geographical distance from each other and which do not overlap have no need to avoid hybrids and are thus not able to distinguish between their own and different species when brought together artificially.

  48. Other ornithological examples in On the Origin of Species (Darwin 1872) are a discussion on bird races versus species with the example of the red grouse of Britain being perhaps a subspecies of the willow grouse (p. 69), survival rates of eggs and nestlings (pp. 82, 84–85), mortality rate of birds in Darwin’s garden during the winter of 1854–55 (p. 86), the range extension of bird species such as mistle thrush and swallow, causing the decline of other species (p. 92), the natural selection of camouflage colours in grouse (p. 100), the hatching of birds (p. 101), sexual selection in birds, especially in birds of paradise, rock-thrushes, peacocks and turkeys (pp. 103–104), a separate subspecies of guillemot (Uria aalge spiloptera) on the Färoe Islands (p. 106), plumage colours (p. 145), constraints of construction in bird morphology explained by the variety of kidney forms in adaptation to different pelvis-bones (p. 154), flightless and rarely flying birds (pp. 146–147, 181, 224), bird flight (p. 182), differences in the behaviour of the great tit (pp. 183, 275), the diving ability of the white-throated dipper, which is seen in relation to hardly any visible adaptation (p. 184), the webbed feet of some birds, such as waterfowl, frigate birds and grebes, compared to the long toes of some waders (p. 184), the green colour of the green woodpecker, discussed in the light of natural versus sexual selection (pp. 200–201), the naked head of the vulture as an adaptation to scavenging versus the naked head of the turkey for display purposes (p. 201), the beauty of plumages and songs (p. 205), beaks of northern shoveler and Egyptian goose (pp. 227–229), bird nests, including those of swiftlets (pp. 254, 275), differences in and reasons for the timidity and tameness of birds (pp. 255, 257–258), the breeding behaviour of ostriches and pheasants (p. 262), the similarities in nest construction between closely related but geographically separated species such as wrens, thrushes and hornbills (p. 282), fossil birds (pp. 336, 356, 365), birds as vectors for plant seeds and fresh-water shells (pp. 382–384, 402–404), a seed-eating heron (p. 403), birds from certain islands like the Bermudas, Madeira and the Canary Islands as an example of the means of geographical distribution (p. 406), birds replacing large mammals in certain regions shown by the moas on New Zealand (p. 406), near world-wide ranges of some avian genera (p. 416), and the parallel embryological development of different vertebrates, including birds, as well as the similarity of nestlings and juveniles of the same genus, such as those of different thrush species (p. 447). The glossary (pp. 493–525) explains the following ornithological terms: Furcula (bone), Gallinaceous Birds, Gallus, Grallatores, Primaries, and Scutellae (scales on bird feet). In the concordance of Darwin (1859), 180 entries are for bird(s), 63 entries for mammal(s), 58 for fish(es), 12 for reptile(s), none for amphibian(s), 117 entries for insect(s), 58 for fossil(s), 160 for terms on geology & mineralogy and 364 entries for plant(s), giving birds quite a prominent place (Barrett et al. 1981).

  49. In addition to the “Beagle” birds, the following items of Darwin’s collection can be found at the BMNH: 60 domestic pigeon skins, 6 domestic duck skins, 11 skeletons of ducks, 46 skeletons of pigeons and 28 skeletons of chickens, and 26 (25 still at the BMNH) skins of Persian birds from Teheran, which were previously in Sir John Murray’s (1841–1914) possession (Steinheimer 2003).


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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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Correspondence to Frank D. Steinheimer.

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Communicated by F. Bairlein

Dedicated to Prof. Dr. Ernst Mayr

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Steinheimer, F.D. Charles Darwin’s bird collection and ornithological knowledge during the voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”, 1831–1836. J Ornithol 145, 300–320 (2004).

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  • Bird collection
  • Charles Darwin
  • Ornithology
  • Voyage of the “Beagle”