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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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Migration of Birds (S244: 1874)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: In this short (one-page) letter to the Editor, printed in the Nature of 8 October 1874, Wallace comments on the relation of natural selection to bird migration. Various portions of this work were later reprinted in dozens of places. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S244.htm

    The subject to which Prof. Newton1 has called attention is one of great interest to all naturalists, and requires to be studied systematically; for I can hardly think that the solution is so "simple in the extreme" as Mr. Newton thinks it may be.

    It appears to me probable that here, as in so many other cases, "survival of the fittest" will be found to have had a powerful influence. Let us suppose that in any species of migratory bird, breeding can as a rule be only safely accomplished in a given area; and further, that during a great part of the rest of the year sufficient food cannot be obtained in that area. It will follow that those birds which do not leave the breeding area at the proper season will suffer, and ultimately become extinct; which will also be the fate of those which do not leave the feeding area at the proper time. Now, if we suppose that the two areas were (for some remote ancestor of the existing species) coincident, but by geological and climatic changes gradually diverged from each other, we can easily understand how the habit of incipient and partial migration at the proper seasons would at last become hereditary, and so fixed as to be what we term an instinct. It will probably be found, that every gradation still exists in various parts of the world, from a complete coincidence to a complete separation of the breeding and the subsistence areas; and when the natural history of a sufficient number of species in all parts of the world is thoroughly worked out, we may find every link between species which never leave a restricted area in which they breed and live the whole year round, to those other cases in which the two areas are absolutely separated. The actual causes that determine the exact time, year by year, at which certain species migrate, will of course be difficult to ascertain. I would suggest, however, that they will be found to depend on those climatal changes which most affect the particular species. The change of colour, or the fall, of certain leaves; the change to the pupa state of certain insects; prevalent winds or rains; or even the decreased temperature of the earth and water, may all have their influence. Ample materials must exist, in the case of European birds, for an instructive work on this subject. The two areas should be carefully determined for a number of migratory birds; the times of their movements should be compared with a variety of natural phenomena likely to influence them; the past changes of surface, of climate, and of vegetation should be taken account of; and there seems no reason to doubt that such a mode of research would throw much light on, if it did not completely solve, the problem.

    This is an appropriate opportunity for making a suggestion which has long been in my mind. It is, that it would be a valuable and interesting addition to Nature, if we were supplied with a weekly (or monthly) "Calendar of Periodical Phenomena in Natural History," such as the average dates of appearance and departure of migratory birds, of the opening and fall of the leaf of our forest trees and common cultivated trees and shrubs; of the flowering of our common field and garden plants; and also the mean highest and lowest temperature of each day, the direction of the wind and amount of rainfall for each week, according to the Greenwich averages. None of this information is given in the usual almanacks or periodicals, and it is by no means easy to find it when wanted. Yet it is surely of much value to everyone who lives in the country, and would be the means of exciting an intelligent interest in such observations and inquiries as those to which Prof. Newton has called our attention in his interesting article.

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Editor's Note:

1Alfred Newton, English ornithologist (1829-1907).

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