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Caterpillars and Birds (S130: 1867)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page 206 of the 23 March 1867 issue of The Field. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S130.htm

    Sir,--May I be permitted to ask the co-operation of your readers in making some observations during the coming spring and summer, which are of great interest to Mr Darwin and myself. I will first state what observations are wanted, and then explain briefly why they are wanted. A number of our smaller birds devour quantities of caterpillars, but there is reason to suspect that they do not eat all alike. Now we want direct evidence as to which species they eat and which they reject. This may be obtained in two ways. Those who keep insectivorous birds, such as thrushes, robins, or any of the warblers (or any other that will eat caterpillars), may offer them all the kinds they can obtain, and carefully note (1) which they eat, (2) which they refuse to touch, and (3) which they seize but reject. If the name of the caterpillar cannot be ascertained, a short description of its more prominent characters will do very well, such as whether it is hairy or smooth, and what are its chief colours, especially distinguishing such as are green or brown from such as are of bright and conspicuous colours, as yellow, red, or black. The food plant of the caterpillar should also be stated when known. Those who do not keep birds, but have a garden much frequented by birds, may put all the caterpillars they can find in a soup plate or other vessel, which must be placed in a larger vessel of water, so that the creatures cannot escape, and then after a few hours note which have been taken and which left. If the vessel could be placed where it might be watched from a window, so that the kind of birds which took them could also be noted, the experiment would be still more complete. A third set of observations might be made on young fowls, turkeys, guineafowls, pheasants, &c., in exactly the same manner.

    Now the purport of these observations is to ascertain the law which has determined the colouration of caterpillars. The analogy of many other insects leads us to believe that all those which are green or brown, or of such speckled or mottled tints as to resemble closely the leaf or bark of the plant on which they feed, or the substance on which they usually repose, are thus to some degree protected from the attacks of birds and other enemies. We should expect, therefore, that all which are thus protected would be greedily eaten by birds whenever they can find them. But there are other caterpillars which seem coloured on purpose to be conspicuous, and it is very important to know whether they have another kind of protection, altogether independent of disguise, such as a disagreeable odour and taste. If they are thus protected, so that the majority of birds will never eat them, we can understand that to get the full benefit of this protection they should be easily recognised, should have some outward character by which birds would soon learn to know them and thus let them alone; because if birds could not tell the eatable from the uneatable till they had seized and tasted them, the protection would be of no avail, a growing caterpillar being so delicate that a wound is certain death. If, therefore, the eatable caterpillars derive a partial protection from their obscure and imitative colouring, then we can understand that it would be an advantage to the uneatable kinds to be well distinguished from them by bright and conspicuous colours.

    I may add that this question has an important bearing on the whole theory of the origin of the colours of animals, and especially of insects. I hope many of your readers may be thereby induced to make such observations as I have indicated, and if they will kindly send me their notes at the end of the summer, or earlier, I will undertake to compare and tabulate the whole, and to make known the results, whether they confirm or refute the theory here indicated.

--Alfred R. Wallace, 9, St. Mark's-crescent, Regent's Park, N.W.

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