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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James R. Garrett1 to Robert Patterson   1 December 1854

17 College Sqre. East. | Belfast

1st. Decr. 1854.

My dear Mr. Patterson,

The subject referred to in Mr. Darwin’s note is one which has long interested me, & I am glad to have the opp.y. of supplying some of the details which he wishes for.— In June 1848 Mr. D. wrote to Mr. Thompson2 requesting to be informed of the result of any observations which the latter might have made relative to (amongst other things) the dispersal of fresh water productions by birds; and in Feb.y. 1850 Professor E. Forbes, who was then preparing a paper for the R. I. “on the distribution of fresh water animals & plants,”3 made a similar application.

I have found the two letters in Mr. Ts. MSS. tog.r. with notes of his reply to Professor Forbes & some other mema. of which I enclose copies.—4 The Athenæum of 16th. March 1850, contains a notice of the Professor’s paper, in which he mentioned Mr. T’s views; & lest Mr. Darwin shd. not have the Edin. Phil. Jour. at hand, I send a copy of an extract from it which Mr. T. had made.5

The taxidermist alluded to in the reply to Forbes’s note, is Mr. Darragh the Curator of our museum,6 & I find that he has nothing to add to what he had formerly stated to Mr. T., save that he has in sevl. instances obtained the seeds of plants in the stomachs of ducks.— He mentions one specimen in particular which was shot at Lough Neagh & contained a large quantity of the seeds of an aquatic plant, abundant there.—

I venture to make the following suggestions, altho’ there may not be any novelty in them:—

1st. That where seeds in a vegetative condition are transported to a great distance by birds, their dispersal, in that condition, is most probably attributable to Birds of Prey, which after feeding on the seed-eating birds, cast up the seeds uninjured; or to the death of the seed-eating birds, from any cause, after reaching land, but before the seeds have been subjected to the full operation of the digestive process.— I do not mean to say that this process necessarily destroys the vegetative power in all cases, for, on the contrary, it is well known that grains of oats often pass uninjured through the stomachs of horses, especially when the animals are old; but I have never heard of any well-authenticated instance of a perfect seed having been observed in the excrement of a bird.— I can howr. certify that I shot the sparrowhawk referred to in one of Mr. T’s. mema., after it had retired to roost in the ev.g., & that on dissection next day, I found in it the greater portion of a Grey linnet, includ.g. its crop with the contents, consisting of a whole grain of wheat & some small seeds.—

The accompanying note respect.g. Mr. Langtry’s eagles shows that they cast up entire grains of oats swallowed whilst they were feeding on small birds, & it is not therefore going too far to surmise that if my sparrowhawk had set out on migration instead of going to roost, immediately after eating the Grey linnet, the wheat & other seeds would have had a fair chance of vegetating at a distance. Various birds of prey are well known to take long & very rapid migratory flights, but even if they did not do so, they might still be the means of saving the vegetative power of seeds conveyed in the stomachs of ducks &c., by preying on the latter so soon as they arrived.—

2nd. Mr. Thompson seems to have thought that the Grallatores could not be instrumental in transporting seeds, “as they are not vegetable feeders ” but altho’ they do not feed on seeds, some of them, for example the Curlew, Woodcock & Snipe, are in the habit of inserting their entire bills into soft boggy places in search of worms &c. & I have on different occasions procured Curlews & snipe with the feathers at the bases of their bills soiled with earthy matter.— It is quite possible that minute seeds might thus be taken up accidentally & carried to a distce

8th. Decr.

(I have been obliged to lay aside this letter since 1st. Inst. which will account for my apparent neglect.—)

3rd. Altho’ the Natatores may, as observed by Mr. Thompson, usually migrate from the Sea, we know that many of the vegetable feeders are in the habit of resorting to fresh water lakes, ponds & marshy places along the coasts, every evening, and that they remain there during the greater part of the night.—

4th. Within the last week, & since I commenced the present letter, I have had an opportunity of examining the contents of the stomach of a wild goose (the Beau Goose) shot at an inland locality in the Co.y. of Down.—

It contained vegetable matter mixed with about a tablespoonful of sand & on separating the former I found the calyx or seed vessel (I could not with certainty say which) of a small plant— The seeds themselves may or may not have been mixed with the sand in this particular case, but the presence of any of the parts concerned in fructification shows that these birds do not merely crop the leaves or roots; & the circumstce. of their swallowing so much sand ought not to be overlooked, for even if the bird should perish on a barren rock, the soil which wd. be formed by its decayed body and the sand, might form a sufficient bed for seeds to grow in.—

Magillivray, altho he throws doubt upon the old & often repeated opinion that the seeds of the Misseltoe germinate after passing through the intestines of the Missel-thrush, admits that on 2 occasions he found whole seeds in the intestines of birds (See his Br. birds V. 2. p. 125) 7 & Balfour in his Classbook of Botany8 says:— “The pulpy covering of some fruits renders them fit for the food of birds & other animals, and when the seeds are hard & enclosed in a stony endocarp, they may escape the action of the gastric juice & be deposited in a state fit for germination.”

Yours sinc.y. | Jas. R. Garrett Robt. Patterson Esq. | Belfast.

CD annotations

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Irish solicitor and botanist friend of William Thompson. Thompson had died in 1852, and Patterson was an executor of Thompson’s estate. Patterson must have forwarded this letter to CD.
This letter has not been found.
The Athenæum, no. 1168, 16 March 1850, p. 290, reported on Edward Forbes’s lecture at the Royal Institution ‘On the distribution of freshwater animals and plants’. Thompson was mentioned in the report.
The memorandums referred to by Garrett were passed on to CD by Patterson. They are in DAR 205.2 (Letters), but have not been transcribed here.
Garrett refers to a paper by Charles Martins (Martins 1849) printed in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, from which Thompson had extracted passages to send to Forbes. The extract was copied out for Patterson and enclosed with the letter. It has not been transcribed here.
William Darragh, curator of the museum of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, 1844–91, was described at the outset of his career as ‘the best taxidermist in Ireland in respect of birds’. (J. N. H. Nesbitt, personal communication).
William MacGillivray’s History of British birds (MacGillivray 1837–52), with annotations by CD, is in the Darwin Library–CUL.


Athenæum. 1844. A few words by way of comment on Miss Martineau’s statement. No. 896 (28 December): 1198–9.

Balfour, John Hutton. 1852–4. Class book of botany: being an introduction to the study of the vegetable kingdom. 2 pts. Edinburgh.

Martins, Charles. 1849. On the vegetable colonisation of the British Islands, Shetland, Feroe, and Iceland. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 46: 40–52. [Vols. 6,7]


Discusses the transport of seeds by birds. William Thompson received letters on this subject from CD in 1848 and from Edward Forbes in 1850. Encloses copies of Thompson’s reply to Forbes’s letter of 23 Feb 1850 and of Thompson’s notes (1848–51) on transport of seeds by birds.

Letter details

Letter no.
James R. Garrett
Robert Patterson
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 205.2:
Physical description
8pp †(by CD), encl 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1608,” accessed on 28 January 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5