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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Bernard Peirce Brent   29 May 1861

Dallington | nr. Robertsbridge | Sussex

May 29th. 1861

Dear Sir,

In reply to your’s of the 17th. inst respecting the courtship of Fowls etc. I will endeavour, to give you what information I can,1 in the first place the sexual signs may be classed under three heads, as simple gallantries; general intercourse; and force; the simple gallantries offered by the cock to his hens, consists in bending himself sideways towards her, dropping one wing scraping it along the ground by a succession of quick jerks and striking it against his leg thus he draws up to her looking in her eye, uttering a self satisfied tuck tuck a raw in an assuring tone, then elevating himself raising his hackle, shaking his feathers or Crowing; he also scrapes the ground, picks up any substance calls the hens chup chup drops it to the first that comes, steps back a step or two, and looks up or round with a patronizing air. The General intercourse, is when both consent and understand each other, the cock elevates his head raises his hackle in a foile and offers the hen, if she accepts she stoops, spreads her legs, stiffens her whole frame raises the shoulders of the wings shuts up her tail and drops the feathers below her vent. the cock steps on holding her by the hackle.

When he uses force it is generally a strange hen or one that has been away for a time, dropping both wings and tail raising his hackle and saddle feathers he gives chase and catches her if he can

there are however many minor or less noticeable signs in use and well understood, much meaning is conveyed by the voice the eye and the actions—

for instance the cock looks up catches the eye of a hen at a distance   she feels the effect of his movement and gives a slight totter or stagger her shoulders rise ever so slightly and he rushes over to her;

hens donot seem to have any great choice in the matter, their desire is the ruling passion, they will accept the gallantries of any cock who offers them, if they are laying, but there are many exceptions, an old hen will resist a very young chicken, or even a strange cock if her desire has been lately satisfied. there are some termagant hens, that will fight any stranger hen or cock, and if the cock is not man enough to knock the spirit of opposition out of her she will not submit to him till her desire compels her, or he takes her unawares but in such cases her spirit of opposition frequently, causes her to become a great bully, but she submits at once to the bird who can give her a good hiding—

where many fowls are kept and more cocks than one the head man takes the beat most to his liking and all the hens on his beat submit to him   the others keep at a distance and entice what hens they can to follow them. any hen straying on to the others ground, will be accosted by the cock on to whose ground or into whose presence she may come   if she is inclined she accepts his advances   if not she runs away to the protection of the head cock where she knows the other dares not come. there are many cases in which it may appear that a preference is given by some hens. but it is I think generally, dependent on sexual desire—

I have had hens that were kept without a cock frequently stoop to me; laying hens if tame will almost always place themselves in position if gently handled, when kept from a cock   that is provided they are so tame that their fears do not overbalance their sexual desires.— I have known where several hens were kept without a cock one hen, a laying one, took to treading the other hens out of pure wantonness,— I donot think a hen would care how ugly a cock was if he could only knock her spirit of opposition out of her if she showed it   all fowls even the most timid pullet feel a desire to attack a stranger male or female, and if he was beaten by her she would leave him no peace. but if she is in a state of longing desire he has only to look her in the face and raise his hackle and down she squats quite rigid.

Ducks I know less of   they always attack a stranger they meet face to face placing their heads low and beaks on their chests, they press against each other then seize hold of the feathers or strike with the wings till one gives in and utters the quack of fear. the drake speaks to his ladies with much the air of a consequential dandy   he raises his head lifts up his bill utters his harsh hush hush   sometimes he strikes the water with his bill making a sort of boom and at the same time cocking up his tail   the ducks answer by rushing after him bobbing their heads quickly at their sides and uttering quick short quacks—

the sexual signals are bobbing the head in measured movements, the duck depressing herself before the drake. Geese also bob their heads   the Gander constantly follows and watches the goose   she does not seem to care anything for him   he is continually when on the water dipping his head or asking her, if she consents she also dips her head   this they repeat many times and they both become very excited at this head dipping till she sinks or flattens herself out on the water   he seizes her by the back of the neck   they tread among much noise   all the old ladies have a word to say and it is generally finished up with a wash.

I know nothing of the Pea fowls but I believe the expanding of the train is a sexual ask, In turkeys the cock or gobbeler struts with expanded tail and drooping wings just as the Peacock does but it is no use unless the hen is in want   then his show has some effect   every gobble of the cock she answers by puck and at last lays herself down   as he advances she squeaks and presses her beak to her chest, the cock mounts tramples her and she squeaks   it is a long affair and when over the hen seems right glad to be off—

Guinea fowls are very expeditious and very shy that very few have ever seen them. the cock challenges everything walking on tiptoe, his back raised, wings slightly away from his sides head up or down or any where sometimes on his back, he will be mincing a bout as if he did not know what he was at   the hen is standing quietly apparently very unconcerned crying come back come back   she lays down   I never detected her sign but he rushes over to her and it is accomplished in an instant   if there are many the hens are all standing calling come back come back with heads raised   that is their common call. the cock makes a kind of saw setting noise, and a kind of purring pipe;

In all cases of Poultry that I have noticed the male is continually on the look out and asking the females by voice and gesture   when she feels inclined she gives the signal, a look or gesture it is at once understood

Males decidedly chose and show much preference, especially among those that pair in a wild state. the hen canary when she feels the desire stoops and calls, the cock flies to her and treads her, though perhaps at other times she fights and scolds him, and though he follows and is on the look out has to keep a respectfull distance, some small birds sing while they are chasing their mates. but that is more of a rape than matrimony. The hen rather dreads the song   I never recollect seeing a hen call or stoop to any song but generally fly away, or if she was the master silence him by fighting him, when in separate cages the hen will answer the song by a call but that is not the sexual call.

Unmatched hen Pigeons if rank and tame will always acknowledge my cooing to them   some I had when I could not afford to buy cocks, would come down from the top of the house acknowledge my cooing stoop for me and allow me to lay my hand on them, I should not think that the hen fowls or hen Pigeons selected me for my beauty, but using their signs or counterfeiting them they being in a state of longing could not resist the natural feeling.

thus the cock Pigeon coos he bows his head sweeps the ground with his tail   the hen cares nothing about it, and if he comes in her place she fights, but if unmated or salacious she acknowledges by a twinkle of the eye a bow of the head and an action of the throat as if swallowing   she will sweep forward with spread tail making a curtsey and slightly raising the shoulders of the wings. a wanton will often take the tread of a cock at such times with out pairing.

When paired they signal by pecking behind the wings, then bill, and tread, but Pigeons when paired are very constant, and occasionally do show a preference and an aversion but sexual desire will overcome the strongest aversion and when once thoroughly paired she will not forsake her mate unless an other beats him from her when she takes to the new comer   thus if a Pigeon cannot keep his nests, and the conquerer has not a mate, he is sure to win the hen from the other, unless there is room for the pair to find other place, it is therefore not so much his being victorious, as his having her accustomed place—

To answer your enquiries as you put them, where two cocks are in one yard the victor would not get all the hens as the vanquished would take advantage of their desire when out of the conquerors sight. a few pugnacious hens, will only submit to a strange cock if he can thrash them, but the generality, are governed by desire not choice or the preferance if any must be very small.

In all birds that I have noticed, I fancy the males asks if the female is ripe   she accepts or goes to the first male she sees or hears. I donot think the hen cares for the beauty, of the cock   she may for his attentions, beauty may assist as a charm, perhaps may assist in exciting her feelings   but I donot think they ever think about it or make any choice other than to satisfy their desire by the first offer. the only fact of choice I can call to mind is that an old hen will sometimes run away from a young officious bird and seek the protection of the old cock, just to escape the annoyances of the juvenile.

I donot think the conqueror has any advantage in the affections of the hens simply as being the conquerer but he has a better chance as being master of the walk, and where there are many officious young stags the hens will run to the old cock for peace and quietness   A game hen will yield to a Bantam if she is in want.

I have no experience of Henney cocks but have never heard that their wives ever objected to them on account of dress.

As I have before said both hen fowls and hen Pigeons, when kept without cocks have acknowledged my imitations of their signs and have stooped to me which I think can hardly speak much for their ideas of beauty.

I have endeavoured to answer your enquiries, if I have misunderstood them I will endeavour to do better if you ask again, any information I can give I shall be pleased to forward.2

I am Dear Sir | Your’s respectfully | B P Brent

C Darwin Esqr

CD annotations

1.3 simple gallantries; general intercourse;] underl blue crayon
1.4 the simple gallantries] square bracket added and underl blue crayon
1.10 The General intercourse, 1.11] underl blue crayon
1.11 both … understand] underl blue crayon
2.1 When … generally] underl blue crayon
5.1 have … matter,] underl blue crayon
5.2 they will … gallantries] underl blue crayon
5.3 an old hen … or cock, 5.5] scored blue crayon
5.8 she submits … hiding— 5.9] scored blue crayon
12.1 In all … wild state. 13.2] scored blue crayon
13.2 the hen … matrimony. 13.6] enclosed in square brackets blue crayon
16.6 he is sure … place— 16.8] scored blue crayon
17.3 a few … their desire 18.5] scored blue crayon
18.6 an old hen … old cock, 18.7] scored blue crayon


CD’s letter has not been found. Brent, an authority on the breeding and care of fowls and other ornamental birds, had assisted CD’s study of variation in domesticated animals since 1856 (see Correspondence vols. 6 and 7, and Variation 1: 132 n.).
CD cited information from Brent’s letter, which he described as ‘almost an essay’, in the discussion of female preference in sexual selection in Descent 2: 117–18. In spite of Brent’s insistence on the lack of choice by domestic hens and the major importance of sexual readiness for breeding, CD explained this as due to ‘the artificial states under which they have long been kept’.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Sexual behaviour of fowls.

Letter details

Letter no.
Bernard Peirce Brent
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Dallington, Sussex
Source of text
DAR 84.1: 1–9
Physical description
ALS 20pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3167,” accessed on 13 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9