natural history

Charles Darwin Day


It’s Darwin Day!

I can think of no better way to celebrate Charles
Darwin’s birthday than with his Galapagos finches, the
most famous birds in Natural History.

The illustrations below are from The Zoology of the
Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain
Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836, Part 3,
Birds.  This five volume work was edited by Darwin, who
was the ship’s naturalist on the expedition to South
America, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand and of course
the Galapagos Islands.

On Darwin’s return, the birds he collected were sent to
John Gould for classification. Gould’s wife Elizabeth,
by now a gifted artist, used her husband’s sketches to
draw and lithograph the new discoveries.


This is Cactornis scandens, now known as Geospiza scandens, the Common Cactus Finch.  ‘Common indeed, I inspired the theory of natural selection!’

Darwin's Finches

Darwin's Finches by Elizabeth Gould

Above, Camarhynchus psittacula, the Large Tree-finch.  Below,  the magnificently beaked Geospiza magnirostris, the Large Ground-finch.

Darwin's Finches

The next illustration – not a finch – is Tanagra darwini, named by Gould for Charles Darwin.  This species is now known as the Blue and Yellow Tanager (Thraupis bonariensis darwinii).

The Blue-and-yellow Tanager (Pipraeidea bonariensis)

Finally, I couldn’t resist this little Flycatcher eyeing up a bug.  A nice touch by Mrs. Gould.  Happy Darwin Day 🙂

Galapagos Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus nanus

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird


‘Lost’ Novel to be Published After 55 Years

A few days ago, the internet (and appropriately Twitter) was a flurry of excitement over the news of a sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  The rediscovered manuscript, actually written before Mockingbird, is called Go Set A Watchman, and takes place 20 years after the original story.

I would like to celebrate this exciting news, not with a Finch, Peck, rabid dog or chifferobe but with real Mockingbirds.

Firstly, a classic from the bird-meister himself, John James Audubon. This famous illustration of mockingbirds defending their nest against a scary rattlesnake caused Audubon a certain amount of trouble. Rattlesnakes, many naturalists mocked, do not climb trees, even on the promise of mockingbird eggs for breakfast. Audubon insisted that he had sketched the scene after witnessing it first hand. Whatever the truth, it’s pretty impressive.

Audubon's Birds of America

Below is Mark Catesby’s Mock-Bird in a Dogwood Tree from his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published from 1729 to 1747.  This two volume, 220 plate epic took Catesby seventeen years to complete, following four years of travelling and collecting, and was the first fully illustrated natural history of North America.

Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

The last illustration is from Alice E. Ball’s A Year with the Birds, published in 1916; just one of fifty-six beautiful images of American birds by Robert Bruce Horsfall.

But hark! what is that?  Distinctly we hear
The pop of a cork, a whistle clear,
A call to a dog, a whip-poor-will’s cry,
A phoebe’s hoarse note.  Against the blue sky,
The same gray-coated, white-vested bird
Is uttering all the sounds we have heard.’

Alice E. Ball

Alice E. Ball - A Year with the Birds