Charles Darwin's Ornithological and Animal Notes

During the last few months of the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin spent most of his time tidying up his extensive scientific notes with the aid of Syms Covington. They consisted basically of two large volumes of the 'Diary of observations on zoology of the places visited during the voyage', preserved in the Cambridge University Library as DAR 30 and 31, two volumes of the 'Diary of observations on the geology of the places visited during the voyage' (DAR 32 and 33), and five volumes of 'Notes on the geology of the places visited during the voyage' (DAR 34-38). Then there are Down House Notebooks 63.1-6 in which all the zoological specimens collected during the voyage were listed. The Zoology Notes and Specimen Lists were transcribed and edited by me and published for the first time by the Cambridge University Press (2000); a paperback edition is due to appear shortly. They may also now be read here on Darwin Online. The appreciably more extensive though perhaps less interesting geology notes remain unpublished. [These have now been fully transcribed and published on Darwin Online, here. JvW]

After leaving the Galapagos Islands on 20 October 1835, and faced with a series of long periods at sea on the voyage home, Darwin first set to work on sorting out his geology notes, and this done by the end of the year, he then went through the Zoology Specimen Lists, marking the numbered entries with capital letters in pencil - A for animal (i.e. a mammal), B for bird, C for crustacean, and so on - showing Syms Covington to which of the separate lists they were to be assigned, and adding various other instructions. In some cases, for example fishes and shells, short lists were drawn up in Covington's hand, but for the mammals and birds Darwin prepared them all himself, often adding valuable further comments. The animal notes were finished by the time the Cocos Keeling Islands were reached in April 1836, and the bird notes at Ascension Island in July.

By far the most important were the bird notes, for they contained the expansion of the brief account, written in the Galapagos in September 1835 of the three species of Mocking Birds (Thenca) found in the islands, into Darwin's realisation that these birds might provide the first example of island endemism and hence of evidence that new species had been created. These five pages were written in 1836 with a new pen and almost without corrections, suggesting that he had had time to reflect carefully on what needed to be said. Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow, my godmother and mentor, was an expert ornithologist who edited Darwin's ornithological notes in a masterful fashion for publication in the Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series 1963.

Around 1980 I read through Darwin's Animal Notes in a photocopy of the manuscript, and decided that they too deserved to be published. Armed with a word-processing programme designed for scientists that is unfortunately now obsolete, I duly transcribed them. But at this time I retired from my University Chair, and having much more time at my disposal I decided to embark on a much more ambitious project to transcribe and edit the whole of the Beagle Zoology Notes and Specimen Lists. This was a most rewarding task that kept me busy for a good many years, after which I found other literary projects to occupy me. I only recently rediscovered my transcript of the Animal Notes at the bottom of a drawer, and thought that it deserved to be disinterred; but in its obsolete language it was not readily readable. I am therefore now very grateful to Karen Parr and Margaret Bardy for having with impeccable accuracy translated it into a Word file, and for having organised Darwin's own somewhat disorganised final notes in such a manner as to make them approximately comprehensible.

Richard Darwin Keynes

June 2005

[Charles Darwin's Beagle animal notes (1832-33)]. Text Image Text & image CUL-DAR29.1.A1-A49

 

 

File last up4 October, 2013e -->e -->