A very queer little fish: Bernard Brent, Charles Darwin, and elusive canaries

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 14 January 2019

trbredcanaryTwenty years ago when I was writing The Red Canary—the story of how in the 1920s a bird enthusiast and a biology teacher created a red canary—I needed to include an overview of the history of canary domestication. To obtain the necessary information, I started to collect eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books on canary breeding. As this was before many of these books became available on-line, I regularly checked for editions available at local and international booksellers.

Brent in 1863

Charles Darwin’s book The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication, from 1868, provided an overview of variation, selective breeding and the process of domestication. In it, he covered the domestication of dogs, cats, pigeons, chickens, and (briefly) the canary. As his main source of information on the canary, Darwin cited a book by Bernard Brent [1]. Brent was a shipbuilder who was also a pigeon, poultry and cage bird enthusiast. He lived not far from Darwin and was a regular contributor to the Cottage Gardener [2] to which Darwin subscribed.

I eventually obtained a wide range of books on canaries, but Brent’s book, The Canary, British Finches, and some other Birds, eluded me. Despite regular inspection of the on-line second bookshops over several years, I never once saw Brent’s book offered for sale. Although this was slightly frustrating, it was not a major obstacle for my research since, I was able to use the copy once owned by Darwin himself, in the Cambridge University Library.

The apparent scarcity of Brent’s book made me suspect that only a few copies had been printed, but it also made me wonder whether Brent might not have been highly rated by the cage-bird cognoscenti. This view was reinforced, when I discovered that Brent had made a mistake—and one that Darwin repeated in Variation [3]—when he claimed that there existed a feather-footed breed of canaries. Brent had obtained this information from a mistranslation of the word ‘duvet’ (meaning down feathers) as ‘rough-footed’ (for unknown reasons) in the English edition of a well-known book about canaries by the French author J-C. Hervieux [4].  In his book, Brent wrote: “The rough-footed or feather-legged Canaries now seem to be very scarce, if the breed is not altogether lost, as I do not remember having seen but one, and that many years back.” [5] This suggests that he thought he may have seen one, which, of course, he could not have done as they do not exist.

brent's canaries plates
Brent’s canaries (1864)

My scouring of the on-line second-hand bookshops identified some twenty other books on canaries that Darwin could have cited in Variation, so why did he use Brent? The main reason I think was that Brent was one of first to enumerate and illustrate the different canary breeds. The drawings aren’t great (see illustration to the left [6]), but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. A further five or ten years were to pass before images of the different breeds in colour became available (see below).

Darwin knew Brent personally. They first met after Darwin became interested in the artificial selection of pigeons in 1855 and attended a fanciers’ meeting in London [7]. After this initial encounter Darwin wrote to his son William referring to Brent as “a very queer [meaning unusual] little fish”,  adding that “all pigeon fanciers are little men, I begin to think” [8]. Brent was indeed small in stature [9] and, according to Darwin. both “a very obliging kind man, but very crotchetty” [10] and “eccentric” [11]. Nevertheless, Brent and Darwin corresponded and Brent visited Darwin’s home [12] and became Darwin’s chief source of poultry information [13], as well  providing other details such as the breeding canary-finch hybrids [14]. It is also possible that Brent gave Darwin the copy of his Canary book.

img_7783 (1)
Canary breeds (Anon 1873)

Last week, some fifteen years after The Red Canary was published, I was looking for another old bird book on-line. Failing to find it reminded me of my earlier quest for Brent’s book. I looked again, and to my amazement, there was copy in a bookshop on England’s south coast. I couldn’t resist it—hence the inspiration for this essay.


  • Anonymous (1873) Canaries: their Varieties and Points. London: Dean.
  • Birkhead TR (2003) The Red Canary. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [published in the USA as A Brand New Bird. New York: Basic Books; and reprinted by Bloomsbury, London in 2014].
  • Brent BP (1855) The Cottage Gardener 15: 16 Oct pages 42-43, 13 Nov pages 115-116, and  11 December pages 184-185
  • Brent BP (1864) The canary, British finches, and some other birds: including directions for their management and breeding in the cage and aviary ; as well as the treatment of their diseases; with numerous illustrations. London: Journal of Horticulture & Cottage Gardener Office.
  • Darwin C (1868) The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray.
  • Hervieux de Chanteloup J-C (1718) A New Treatise of Canary Birds.  London: Bernard Lintot, London. [Available here. This is an English translation of Hervieux de Chanteloup J-CC (1709) Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie. Paris: Claude Prodhomme. Available here]
  • Irwin R (1951) British Bird Books: an index to British ornithology, A.D. 1481 to A.D. 1948. London: Grafton & Co.
  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A Bibliography of British Ornithology from the Earliest Times to the End of 1912, including biographical accounts of the principal writers and bibliographies of their published works. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited.

  • Wood CA (1931) An Introduction to the  Literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press.


  1. a book by Bernard Brent: still not available anywhere online. Brent’s book is not listed in any of the bibliographies in my library, including: Wood (19310, Irwin (1951), and Mullens & Swan (1917). This is, in itself, is a quite telling indication of the scarcity of Brent’s. book. In 1878, Brent’s book sold for 1s. 6d. [the equivalent of US$11.15 in today’s currency]. Bernard Peirce Brent (1822-1867) lived at Bessels Green, Riverhead, in 1857, only 15 km from Darwin’s house in Downe, Kent
  2. The Cottage Gardener: from 1849-1855 published under this name for volumes 1-15 [vol 1-11 available here, but vol 15 with Brent’s article curiously unavailable online] then from 1861-1871 as Journal of horticulture, cottage gardener and country gentlemen with the new series starting with volume 1 in 1861 [vols 1-4, 6-8, 19-21, and 23  available here]
  3. Darwin repeated in Variation: as a result this mistake was repeated by others, trusting Darwin
  4. J-C. Hervieux: Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup (1683-1747) was inspecteur des bois à batir [timber inspector] in Paris, and looked after canaries owned by the Princesse de Condé who lived in the palace at Chantilly and to whom Hervieux dedicated his book
  5. two quotations: from Brent 1864, page 22
  6. Brent’s illustrations: the drawings are from Brent (1864) but I have added the names that he used
  7. attended a pigeon fanciers’ meeting in London: Darwin attended a meeting of the Columbarian Society, near London Bridge, on the 29 November 1855.
  8. quotation: see Darwin Correspondence Project Corr 5: 509
  9. small in stature: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 119
  10. “…very crochetty”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 13, Suppl. : 443 [see here]
  11. “eccentric”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 337 [see here]
  12. Brent visited Darwin’s home: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 247
  13. Darwin’s chief source of poultry information: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 60 n6
  14. breeding canary-finch hybrids: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 470

IMAGES: Red Canary cover by the author; Brent portrait from a site summarizing his family tree and relation to Isaac Newton [here]; canaries from Brent (1864) and Anon (1873) are from the author’s copies


BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 7 January 2019

A couple of years ago, my family and I had an early morning stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to our spring bolthole in the French Pyrenees.  As we stumbled bleary-eyed to the end of the passport and customs lines, a tall, burly passport control agent took us aside and rather gruffly asked me “Are you with Her Majesty’s Secret Service?” My eloquent response was “Huh?”, to which he even more loudly repeated what he had just said. Passport control agents make me nervous at the best of times, so I blurted out the only response I could think of: “No, sir, I work for Queen’s University, not the Queen. There must be some mix-up.” He scowled, then broke into a broad smile and said, “No, I am just kidding, you are in seat 007.” Who knew that border agents had a sense of humour?

Bond, James Bond

I was reminded of that incident when I read, last week, that the real James Bond—the ornithologist, James Bond—was born on 4 January 1900. The story of Ian Fleming adopting the name ‘James Bond’ for his fictional hero is well-known (see the Wikipedia link, above) so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, at least from an ornithological perspective, the real James Bond is more interesting.

In the obituary that he wrote for The Auk, Kenneth Parkes said that Bond “was a bridge between the centuries in his ornithology as in his lifespan” [1]. I interpret this as meaning his approach to ornithological collections bridged the 19th (Victorian) and 20th century approaches. I consider there to be at least 4 distinct periods of ‘museum’ work in ornithology which I would call: (1) the Curiosity period where individual natural historians maintained small cabinets of curiosity and the focus was on identification and discovery, (2) the Victorian period where large collections were most often amassed by wealthy men who were largely self-taught, and the focus was on classification based on subjective comparison of specimens, (3) the Qualitative period where those private collections moved to museums and the focus was on distributions and zoogeography,  obtaining series of specimens to study the extent of within and between species variation, and (4) the present Quantitative period where museum collections are used to obtain data information about colours, shapes, sizes, and genetics of birds to test hypotheses about evolutionary change and anthropogenic influences. In many ways Bond bridged the Victorian and Qualitative periods.

de Schauensee

Bond grew up in Philadelphia but spent 8 years in England before graduating from Cambridge in 1922. Although he was always interested in natural history, his first job was in the foreign exchange department of a bank in Philadelphia. He quit that job in 1925 to pursue his interest in birds by joining the staff at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Almost right away he was to accompany Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee on a bird collecting expedition to the lower Amazon of Brazil, from 10 Feb – 26 May 1926. de Schauensee was exactly one year younger than Bond, but was already a curator of birds at The Academy. On that expedition, they collected 500 birds and a few mammal specimens, and obtained valuable information [2] on species distributions and abundances . Even though they were outside the main part of the breeding season, they found and described the nests of several species, a topic (nidification) that became one of Bond’s life-long interests.

Many aspects of that expedition and Bond’s early career typify what I have called Victorian ornithology in that the major goals were to build up collections in museums, to learn about distributions of species, and to gather information relevant to systematic relationships among species. Bond, in particular, thought that the study of nesting habits might provide useful clues to systematic relationships. Also, like most Victorian ornithologists both Bond and de Schauensee had no formal training in science beyond an undergraduate education and worked at the museum without salary as both had independent wealth.

Bond is certainly best known for his work on the zoogeography of Caribbean birds, which soon became his main life-long interest. The second (1947) edition of his Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies [3] was illustrated with line drawings by Earl Poole and the third (1963) with spectacular plates by Don Eckleberry. That guide was, of course, how the novelist and birdwatcher, Ian Fleming, came across his name while on holiday at his estate on Jamaica. Bond revised the 6th edition of his field guide just before he died and it is still—30 years later, and more than 70 years after the 1947 edition—in print and available on Amazon.

Covers of editions 1-6, left to right (1936, 1947, 1974, 1980, 1985, 1993)

Bond’s research on Caribbean birds was more typical of the Qualitative period of museum ornithology in that he used his specimens to develop ideas about the zoogeography of Caribbean birds. David Lack once suggested to him that the avifaunal boundary that he had described between the birds of Tobago and those of the Lesser Antilles should be called Bond’s Line. Good idea!

the West Indies faunal region showing how it does not include Tobago (from Bond 1993)

Bond remained on the staff at The Academy for the rest of his career, publishing more than 30 papers on birds of the Caribbean islands. By the mid-1960s, he was well known as the inspiration for the name of Ian Fleming’s hero. On one of his trips to Jamaica he met Ian Fleming who gave him a copy of his novel You Only Live Twice, inscribed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”. [4]

baby white pelican
a ‘fleming’ White Pelican

Before they visited Bond on Jamaica, Ian Fleming replied to a letter from Bond’s wife Mary concerning his use of her husband’s name for his swashbuckling, womanizing hero: ”It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born. In return, I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.” [5] It’s probably too late to expect the discovery of new and suitably horrible species of bird, but maybe we should call particularly ugly bird chicks ‘flemings’. Those of White Pelican would get my vote [6].


  • Anonymous (1989) James Bond, Ornithologist, 89; Fleming Adopted Name for 007. New York Times, 17 Feb 1989, page D19
  • Bond J (1947) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. New York: MacMillan.
  • Bond J (1993) Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Parkes K  (1989). In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106: 718–720.
  • Ripley SD (1986) In Memoriam: Rudolph Meyer de Schauensee. The Auk 103: 204-206
  • Stone W (1928) On a collection of birds from the Para Region, eastern Brazil. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 80: 149-176
  • Salvador RB, Tomotani BM (2015) The birds of James Bond. Journal of Geek Studies 2: 1-9 [accessed online 5 Jan 2019 here]


  1. quotation: from Parkes 1989 page 718
  2. obtained valuable information: their observations and findings were published by Witmer Stone (1928) who was, at the time, the senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Director 1925-1928 and Curator of Vertebrates 1918-1936
  3. Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies: the first edition was published in 1936 as Birds of the West Indies and Bond reverted to that title in for editions 3-6. The first two editions had no colour plates so were not in the same genre as modern field guides.
  4. inscription by Ian Fleming: reported in The Telegraph (UK) for 2 Dec 2008 [see here] when the book was sold at auction for £50,000
  5. Ian Fleming quotation: from Bond’s obituary in the New York Times (anonymous 1989)
  6. white pelican chicks: This suggestion was inspired by a brilliant graduate course term paper written almost 40 years ago by Bruce Lyon (now a prof at UC Santa Cruz) entitled ‘Why are baby pelicans so ugly?’

IMAGES: Bond from The Paris Review 26 Nov 2012; de Schauensee from Ripley (1986); covers from various bookseller sites; Bond Line from Bond (1993); pelican photo courtesy Bruce Lyon

Three French Hens

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 24 December 2018

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and, like last year, I am spending the holidays in the north woods, a few km south of the southern tip of Algonquin Park, on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. I wrote about the Twelve Days of Christmas song a year ago and am repeating that essay here with some new pictures and a few additions—including some details about those Three French Hens—that I have learned about over the past year.

I particularly like The Twelve Days of Christmas because the words are secular, even though there are myriad religious interpretations [1]. The song originated in an 18th century memory game, celebrating an annual period of drunkenness and merrymaking sandwiched between two religious feasts. Many of those twelve days are about birds that were prized for the table. In mediaeval England, this period following Christmas was presided over by the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland by the Abbott of Unreason, both titles that I would be proud to bear.


The words to this Christmas song were first published in English in the late 1700s as a rhyme in a book called Mirth without Mischief, likely derived from a much older French song of similar structure and content, Les Douze Mois. The now familiar tune was not written until 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.

As you will recall—for by now it’s an ear worm that you can’t stop humming—the 12 days begin on Christmas Day with the partridge. On 5 or 6 of the following days, the gifts are birds, interrupted musically, thematically and enigmatically by those 5 golden rings. I have no idea why the first 7 gifts are birds, but I expect there are traditional and psychological reasons that have been claimed for this but they are probably all about food. There have also been many Christian interpretations of this song but really no evidence to support any of them. I find the secular interpretations to be far more interesting and valid.

In the almost 238 years since the rhyme was first published in English, there have been at least 20 different versions of the words, especially with respect to the birds. Some of these variants are undoubtedly Mondegreens [2], but they were often probably just attempts to make the words more relevant to a contemporary audience.

The PARTRIDGE—on the first day of Christmas— was always a partridge, except in Scott’s 1892 version where it was a “very pretty peacock.”  Some authors claim that the partridge was the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) a very popular game bird that had just been successfully introduced to England from France in about 1770, and much more likely to perch in trees than the native and abundant Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). But what about that pear tree, which again has been often claimed to have religious connotations. The French poem that may have been the basis for the English rhyme has a partridge representing the first month “Un’ Perdix Sole’. That version says that the bird flies in the woods (‘qui vol dans les bois’). The Perdix is the Grey Partridge, which in Old French was spelt ‘perdrix’ or ‘pertriz’, pronounced something very close to ‘pear tree’. I wonder if the English rhyme was originally ‘partridge and a perdrix’, though that would be two birds for day one. Nonetheless it seems to me quite likely that the pear tree was actually the perdrix, and had nothing at all to do with pears or trees.

On day 2, the TURTLE DOVES were French hens in one 1877 version, and the FRENCH HENS on day 3 were once ‘fat hens’ in 1864, and turtle doves in 1877. There’s a theme here as the first 3 birds were highly prized for the table, an excellent start to a period of feasting.

GallicRoosterBut why ‘French‘ hens? The Latin word for chicken is gallus and, as a result, the scientific name is Gallus gallus [3]. In Roman times, France was Gaul, and people who lived there were Gallic. It seems that the simple word association between the homonyms Gallus and Gallic irrevocably associated the fowl with France. Indeed, a rooster was often a decorative ornament on church bell towers in France during the Middle Ages, and the Gallic Rooster (see photo, right) was an important symbol during the French Revolution.

Bresse Gauloise

But also, when the Twelve Days rhyme was written, French hens were a prized table bird in both France and England. The breed Bresse Gauloise, for example, was sometimes called the ‘queen of poultry and the poultry of kings’. This breed originated in France in the late 16th century. La Fleche is also an ancient French breed from the Loire region of western France, and was renowned for its delicate flesh. During the 16th century hens from France were a luxury import from France. In the 19th century, the Houdan, another old breed from west of Paris, was one of the main meat breeds of France, and was imported to North America in 1865.

La Fleche

We humans are inordinately fond of eating chickens and a recent report suggests that the 60 billion chickens that we slaughter every year may turn out to be the paleontological signal of the Anthropocene. Of all the birds mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas, I doubt that anyone in 1800 could have predicted that the French hens and their kin would someday become the most abundant bird in the world, by at least an order of magnitude.

The CALLING BIRDS of day 4 are the most interesting to me as the original said ‘colly birds’ and subsequent variants said the birds were ‘canary’, ‘collie’, ‘colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘curley’, ‘coloured’, ‘corley’, and finally ‘calling’ by Austin in 1909 published with his new tune. I am surprised no one ever suggested ‘collared’. The original ‘colly bird’ was the European Blackbird (Turdus merula) as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’, and is why border collies bear that name. The subsequent versions are undoubtedly the result of mis-hearings and misinterpretations.

The gift for day 5 in the original and modern version is GOLDEN RINGS but several sources claim that these are birds too, probably European Goldfinches, which were called goldspinks in the 1700s. Others have argued that these were Ring-necked Pheasants which have been claimed to have golden rings around their neck (but they don’t). The pheasant interpretation matches the culinary theme of the other 6 birds in the song, but the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in the 18th century. The melodic break in the song suggests a change of theme but the melody was added more than a century after the words.

The birds of days 6 and 7—the GEESE A-LAYING and the SWANS A-SWIMMING—round out the culinary theme before the song turns to dance providing some exercise after all that feasting, and chores that may have been neglected.

Here in the north woods the colly birds (and the only birds really calling) are Ravens, and the only ‘partridge’ is the Spruce Grouse, as all the geese, swans, doves, and goldfinches have departed for more southern winter quarters. The good news, this year, is that there are Pine and Evening Grosbeaks in the neighbourhood, as well as both species of redpoll. E-bird (map below) shows that I am well-situated (white star) to see Evening Grosbeaks in numbers, a bird I have seen only occasionally for the past 50 years.

Sightings of Evening Grosbeak Oct-Dec 2018 (from e-bird)

Counting the 5 golden rings, there are 28 individual birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas but I will be lucky to see even 28 individual birds on a day out in the winter woods here, where the temperature will be below freezing—and sometimes way below—for the next four months. That will not stop the 75 or more people who will gather in Algonquin Park for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 29 December, where they will probably record fewer than 28 species [4] in a hard day’s work on foot, skis and snowshoes. This will be the 45th consecutive CBC for Algonquin Park and the 118th CBC since Frank Chapman started the count in 1900.

During the 19th century, the Christmas Side Hunt was a popular competition to gather game for the table during the 12 days of Christmas. Chapman, however, was a conservationist who saw great value in watching rather than hunting birds. That first CBC involved only 27 birdwatchers at 25 sites from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, laying the foundations for what we now call citizen science.

French Hens (Houdans)


  • Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.


  1. myriad religious interpretations: see here, for example
  2. Mondegreen: Jimi Hendrix created a classic ‘Mondegreen’ when he sang (at least to my ears) “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in his song ‘Purple Haze’, first released as a single in 1967. Rock lyrics are a rich source of Mondegreens—words or phrases that are misheard—as Sylvia Wright, who coined the term, did when she heard a Scottish ballad say “Lady Mondegreen” when it actually said “laid him on the green”.
  3. Gallus gallus: Linnaeus established this in 1758, but John Ray called them Gallus gallinaceus in 1676 and the name had clearly been in use for some time in England and Europe. Gallus gallus is, of course, the scientific name of the wild ancestor of the domestic hen, the Red Junglefowl of southeast Asia
  4. fewer than 28 species: that’s what I predicted for last year and they did indeed record that number, and 4704 individuals. Their sighting rate was 31 birds per party hour and that was well above the average of 25. That’s a lot of work (maybe 3 birds per hour per party), but a great day out.