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Darwin Correspondence Project

From B. J. Sulivan   11 March 1871


March 11/71

My dear Darwin

In reading your new book I was reminded of some facts connected with a parrot talking, which—I have always felt convinced—showed that it really had the “power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas”1

It was a grey one from Africa,2 brought home when young by a man who had served with me, and given to my Father’s family at Falmouth.3 The following are a few of many similar facts for which I and others of my family can vouch.

If in his cage outside, directly any drops of rain fell he would call loudly “take Polly in it is coming to rain”—and I never heard him say this at other times.

He would correctly call persons by their names— I once saw him in a corner of a room near the door where he could see into the passage as the door was opened. The servant opened the door for a visitor & instantly before he entered the parrot said “hollo Miller” & to my astonishment the Dr, whose name was Miller,4 entered the room.

The bird would call my sister by name “Henrietta”5 when he wanted her to give him food—and never applied the same name to another person—

He invariably said “Good morning” to every one entering the dining room at breakfast time—and good night to every one as they left the room to go to bed. but he never applied these words improperly— To my father he regularly added to “Good morning”— “how are you old boy”? he never said this to any one else, neither did he ever say it to any one after my father’s death, during the ten years he survived him.

He must have associated the words in these cases with certain persons and things.

I once heard him repeating in a very excited way from another room. “Go out Sir”— “Go out Sir”— I found a small dog had got into the room through the open window—

On one occasion when my father had as usual gone into the dining room at about twelve Oclock to take a glass of ale,—a bottle of which with a tumbler was placed for him on the table—he found the tumbler & part of the ale gone. He said “who has been taking my ale”. the parrot at once said—“Norah”. My sister Norah6 had just before taken it to give to a person in another room. On another occasion—his cage was in the kitchen & near it another cage with a green parrot. Polly was heard scolding in a very angry tone—“You naughty bird”— “You naughty Polly”— “How dare you Sir”—& violently fluttering his wings; this was caused by the green parrot having got out of his cage and on the kitchen table, where he was feasting on some apples. It is impossible to doubt that he connected in his mind the words he used, with what he knew to be the fault of the other bird.

He was very fond of quietly enticing the cat to his cage, by saying in a very gentle voice “puss” “puss “puss”—and then directly the cat came close changing his tone and saying very loudly “go away” “go away Sir” “go away”—and then laughing as the cat ran away.

Once when he was saying in a very low gentle voice “pussy” pussy”, a little mouse was in the cage. Some words that he used incorrectly, he yet applied correctly so far as the object being always the same in his mind— For instance he had learnt to associate “kettle boiling with breakfast and consequently with his own food; and if my sister did not give him his bit of bread and butter soon after making the tea, he would repeat “Henrietta, kettle boiling”, till he got it; and as he never used the words except at meal times when he wanted his food, he must have meant by “Kettle boiling”—“Bread and butter”—

Hamond7 has lately been staying with us— I was pointing out to him how singularly like a large squirrel, was a brown dog with pointed head & bushy tail over his back—and how easy it was to suppose that they might have sprung from one stock. He said that he thought foxes were more like squirrels and that in Norfolk there were instances of foxes getting into trees.

I have not seen your daughter yet as calling rather early for fear the fine day would take her out of doors, I was too early to find her down stairs8   I hope the fine weather we have had lately—except yesterday will continue while she is here.

My wife joins me in kind regards to Mrs Darwin & yourself

Believe me | very sincerely yours | B. J. Sulivan

CD annotations

1.1 In reading … ideas” 1.3] ‘Language’ blue crayon
2.1 It was … vouch 2.3] ‘Lady Lyell9 confirms by analogies & | distinct | statements’ pencil
12.1 Hamond … I have not seen your 13.1] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘(Often varied bark of Dogs) | Keep |’ pencil
Foot of tenth page: ‘J. B Sulivan’ pencil


In Descent 1: 54, CD argued that human speech differed from that of parrots because of the human ‘power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas’. In ibid., p. 236, CD recounted Alexander von Humboldt’s report of a parrot that was the only creature that could speak the language of a lost tribe.
The African grey parrot is Psittacus erithacus.
Sulivan’s father was Thomas Ball Sulivan; the man has not been identified.
William Henry Miller.
Henrietta Sulivan.
Norah has not been further identified.
Robert Nicholas Hamond.
Henrietta Emma Darwin was staying in Bournemouth, with Edmund and Emily Caroline (Lena) Langton (see letter to H. E. Darwin, 20 March 1871, and Appendix VI). An entry for 28 February 1871 in CD’s Classed account book under the heading ‘Traveling Expences’ records a payment of £20 for ‘H.E.D. Bournemouth’.
Mary Elizabeth Lyell.


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


Recounts case of parrot whose talking seems to show "power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas" [see Descent, 2d ed., p. 85 n.].

Has not seen CD’s daughter yet. Hopes the fine weather will continue while she is there [in Bournemouth].

Letter details

Letter no.
Bartholomew James Sulivan
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 87: 96–100, DAR 177: 296
Physical description
11pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7571,” accessed on 3 December 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19