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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   7 and 11 May [1874]1

Flowers of the Primrose destoyed by Birds

I hope that you will permit me to make a few final remarks on the destruction of primrose flowers by birds. But first I must return my best thanks to your correspondents, as well as to some gentlemen who have written direct to me, and to whom I have not had time to send separate answers.2 Secondly, I must plead guilty to the high crime of inaccuracy.3 As the stalks from which the flowers had been cut were shrivelled, I mistook, in a manner now inexplicable to me, the base of the ruptured or removed ovarium for the summit; a remnant of the shrivelled placenta being mistaken for the base of the pistil. I have now looked more carefully, and find that on twelve stalks only three had any remnant of the ovarium left. I have also examined sixteen bits of the calyx which had been cut off by a caged bullfinch, presently to be noticed, and in fifteen of these not only had the ovarium been torn into fragments or quite destroyed, but all the ovules had been devoured, excepting sometimes one or two. In several cases the calyx had been split open longtitudinally. The ovarium was in the same state in thirteen small portions of the calyx lying on the ground near a wild cowslip plant. It is therefore clear that the ovules are the chief attraction; but the birds in removing by pressure the ovules could not fail to squeeze out the nectar at the open end, as occurred when I squeezed similar bits between my fingers. The birds thus get a dainty morsel, namely, young ovules with sweet sauce. I still think that the nectar is, in part, the attraction, as caged bullfinches and canary birds much like sugar; but more especially because Mr. C. J. Monro has sent me some flowers from a cherry-tree near Barnet, which during several years has been attacked; and he finds many of the flowers, both those on the tree and on the ground, with rather large ragged holes in the calyx, like, but much larger than, those often made by humble bees when they rob flowers in an illegitimate manner.4 Now the inside of the flower of the cherry, round the ovarium, is bedewed (if protected from the visits of insects) with drops of nectar, which sometimes collect so as almost to fill up the bottom of the flower. In the case of the cherry I cannot doubt that this is the attraction, for I examined the ovarium of ten flowers, and although they had all been scored by the bird’s beak, and in four instances puctured, the ovule had in no case been devoured.

To return to the primroses: from the accounts received, it seems that the flowers are cut off in the manner described by me, near Preston in Lancashire, in North Hampshire, Devonshire, and Ireland, as well as in Kent. In several other places, not worth specifying, where primroses are abundant, they have not been thus attacked; and this may possibly be due to the proper enemy, namely, as I suspect, the bullfinch, not being a common bird. In my former letter I remarked that if the habit of cutting off the flowers proved to be a widely extended one, we should have to consider it as inherited or instinctive; as it is not likely that each bird should discover during its individual lifetime the exact spot where the nectar, and, as I must now add, the ovules, lie concealed, or should learn to bite off the flower so skilfully at the proper point. That the habit is instinctive, Prof. Frankland has given me interesting evidence.5 When he read my letter he happened to have in the room a bunch of cowslip flowers and a caged bullfinch, to whom he immediately gave some of the flowers, and afterwards many primrose flowers. The latter were cut off in exactly the same manner, and quite as neatly, as by the wild birds near here. I know that this is the case by having examined the cut-off portions. The bird worked so quickly that he easily destroyed twenty flowers in three minutes; a single wild pair would therefore cause great havoc. Prof. Frankland informs me that his bird pressed the cut-off portions of the calyx in its beak, and gradually worked them out on one side, and then dropped them. Thus the ovules were removed, and the nectar necessarily squeezed out. A canary bird to whom some cowslip and primrose flowers were given attacked all parts indiscriminately, and ate up the corolla, calyx, and stalks. A lady also informs me that her canary and siskin always attack primrose and cowslip flowers, if kept in the same room.6 They generally first make a ragged hole through the calyx opposite the ovarium, and remove the ovules, as I found to be the case with flowers which were sent to me; but the ovules had not been so well removed as by the bullfinch, and the nectar could not be obtained by this method of attack.

But now comes the interesting point: the caged bullfinch just referred to was caught in 1872 near Ventnor, in the Isle of Wight, soon after it had left the nest, by which time the primroses would have been out of flower, and since then, as I hear from Prof. Frankland, it had never seen a primrose or cowslip flower. Nevertheless, as soon as this bird, now nearly two years old, saw these flowers, some machinery in its brain was set into action, which instantly told it in an unerring manner how and where to bite off and press the flowers, so as to gain the hidden prize. We are reminded by this little fact of Mr. Spalding’s admirable observations on the instinctive actions of chickens when their eyes were uncovered, after having been blind-folded from the moment of being hatched.7

Prof. Frankland seems to have been much struck with the behaviour of his bullfinch, and remarks in his letter that “it had all the precision of a chemical reaction; the result of putting a primrose within its reach can be almost as certainly predicted as that of putting a plate of iron into a solution of sulphate of copper.”8

Charles Darwin

Down, Beckenham, Kent, May 7

P.S.—This letter was printed before I saw your last number, and I am glad to find that some of my statements are confirmed, more especially with respect to bullfinches.9 During the last fortnight not one primrose has been attacked in the little wood where shortly before there was such havoc. I imagined that the pair of bullfinches, which I saw there earlier in the season, had wandered away; but yesterday evening (May 10) it occurred to me that the flowers produced late in the season might fail to secrete nectar, or that the recent cold weather might have produced this effect. Accordingly, in the afternoon I gathered fifteen flowers from as many distinct plants, and kept them in water in my room for seventeen hours. Earlier in the season I treated some flowers in the same manner, and found the tube of the corolla full of nectar; but now only one of the flowers contained a very small quantity of nectar, another showing a mere trace of it. And the flowers being no longer cut off by the birds supports my belief that the nectar is one chief attraction to them; the ovules without the sauce not being worth the gathering. I may add that as the primrose is a dimorphic plant, these non-nectariferous flowers would be sterile, for they would not be visited by insects.—C.D.


The year is established by the publication date of this letter in Nature.
See letter to Nature, 18 April [1874]. A number of replies were published in succeeding issues of the journal (see Nature, 30 April 1874, p. 509, and 7 May 1874, pp. 6–7).
Edward Frankland pointed out this mistake in his letter of 26 April 1874.
CD refers to Cecil James Monro (see letter from C. J. Monro, 26 April 1874). High or Chipping Barnet was a town in Hertfordshire, and is now in the London borough of Barnet.
See letters from Edward Frankland, 26 April 1874 and 30 April 1874.
Douglas Spalding’s observations were in Spalding 1872a.
No letter containing this quotation has been found, but see the letter from Edward Frankland, 26 April 1874).
Nature, 7 May 1874, pp. 6–7.


Thanks Nature correspondents for their observations on destruction of primroses [Nature 9 (1874): 509; 10 (1874): 6–7]. Reports an error in his observations: ovules, as well as nectar, are taken by the birds. As the habit of cutting off primrose flowers is widespread, CD concludes it is instinctive in bullfinches.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Nature, 14 May 1874, pp. 24–5

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9444,” accessed on 22 March 2019,

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