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Darwin Correspondence Project

From B. P. Brent   [May–June 1860?]1

Dear Sir,

I have to apolo〈gise for〉 not answering your enquiry 〈about〉 Canaries, throwing back, I 〈am〉 sorry I cannot furnish yo〈u〉 any authentic case, thoug〈h I〉 do not doubt but such of〈ten〉 do occur.2

You express a wish to see some of the latter volu〈m〉es of The Cottage Gardener.3 I have 〈    〉s by me 〈    〉 〈w〉hich 〈    〉 lend you 〈    〉 but 〈    〉 not bound. Should you 〈wish it〉 I would ta〈ke o〉ff the 〈adver〉tisment sheets, and forward 〈    〉 as you may direct.

〈I ha〉ve just read your work on 〈the〉 Origin of Species through a second time, in your chapter on instinct you refer to the Cuck〈oo〉 laying in other birds nest4 I thought 〈    〉 Pige〈on〉 〈    〉 interested 〈    〉 notice that when a 〈    〉 lays only a single egg, 〈and〉 the first has been broken, or she 〈has〉 been much disturbed, she 〈w〉ill frequently lay in another’s nest, a case in Point. A Scotch house Tumbler hen was about to lay having built and the cock was driving her to nest; April 24th. could feel the egg hard and ready to be deposited, toward evening 〈    〉 〈t〉he nest, 〈    〉 laid 〈    〉 and it 〈    〉 with 〈    〉 of young 〈    〉 different part of the 〈    〉 house, I immediately 〈conc〉luded she would not lay a se〈cond〉, which proved correct. She laid again on the 3rd & 5th. of May, sat and hatched a pair, I sat the odd egg under another pair but it did not hatch, I had kept it too long or perhaps it was never fertile—

I am | Dear Sir | Yours respectfully | B P Brent

To C Darwin Esqe


The date is suggested by the publication of Brent’s articles on canaries (see nn. 2 and 3, below).
Brent was an expert on canaries and on poultry. CD had consulted him about canaries on several occasions (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter from B. P. Brent, 23 October 1857; and vol. 7, Supplement, letter from B. P. Brent, [after August 1856]). Between April and September 1860, Brent published a series of articles in the Cottage Gardener describing the different canary breeds. CD may have inquired about reversion in canaries in response to these articles.
In the 10 April issue of the Cottage Gardener 24 (1860): 25–6, Brent discussed the citril finch, supposed by some authorities to be the ancestral form of the European canary. On 17 April (ibid., p. 43), he discussed the wild canary of Madeira, referring to a specimen lent to him by CD.
Origin, pp. 216–19. CD used the example of the cuckoo laying its eggs in the nest of another species as an illustration of an instinct being modified by natural selection. He also cited instances of other birds that occasionally laid their eggs in the nests of other species.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Cannot supply a case of atavism in canaries.

Will lend CD back issues of Cottage Gardener.

Cites case of bird (tumbler hen) laying egg in another’s nest.

Letter details

Letter no.
Bernard Peirce Brent
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 160.3: 297
Physical description
4pp damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2778,” accessed on 26 October 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8