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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Edward Frankland   26 April 1874

14 Lancaster Gate | Hyde Park W.

April 26/74

Dear Mr. Darwin

As I was reading your letter in Nature1 this afternoon a large bouquet of cowslips stood on the table; a bullfinch & a canary were also in the room. I put some of the flowers into the cage of the bullfinch. The bird attacked them ravenously and demolished 17 flowers in less than 10 minutes without displaying any symptoms satiety. Unless distracted by lookers on, the bird always seized the flower at the base of the calyx, biting out the piece in its bill & leaving the rest of the flower to fall unnoticed to the bottom of the cage (I enclose some specimens of the bitten flowers). It seems to me however that the bird has taken not only the nectaries but also the young ovary.2

The canary was next tried; the flowers were also grateful to its palate, but it attacked them in every part indiscriminately eating up corolla, calyx & even stalk.

The bullfinch was brought from Ventnor3 when it was 4 months old, in the autumn of 1872. It was caught soon after it left the nest. Since it has been in confinement, it has not seen primroses or cowslips until the present spring; its experience, therefore, of these flowers must have been extremely limited or most probably nil. Of course it is well known that primroses & cowslips are very abundant in the Undercliff.4

The canary is at least eleven years old, but is probably equally inexperienced as regards the flowers in question

The businesslike way in which the bullfinch went to work upon the flowers convinces me that its selective skill is hereditary.

Yours sincerely | E. Frankland

P.S. If you would like to make any public use of this letter, I need not say that you are quite at liberty to do so.


See letter to Nature, 18 April [1874].
In his letter to Nature, 7 and 11 May [1874], CD referred to the flowers sent by Frankland, and modified his original view that birds bit the stems just above the ovaries.
Ventnor is a town on the Isle of Wight.
The Undercliff is an area of landslip on the Isle of Wight, running along the southern edge of the island.


Bullfinches’ instinctive capacity for removing nectaries from cowslips.

Letter details

Letter no.
Edward Frankland
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Lancaster Gate, 14
Source of text
DAR 164: 210
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9430,” accessed on 25 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22