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Darwin Correspondence Project

From F. B. Zincke   23 [May 1876]1

Wherstead Vicarage. Ipswich.

23 〈May〉

Language of domestic poultry—

Dear Sir—

Since I read yr. works I have taken much interest in the habits & variations of domestic poultry

I have an aviary in which I used years ago to keep small birds. Some weeks ago I placed in this a cock & two hens. I soon found that the cock wished the hens to take possession of the box I had placed on the ground for the hens to lay in. For this purpose 〈he〉 wd. frequently get into the 〈bo〉x, & when in wd. invite the hens to enter. This he did by uttering the same sounds as those with which the hen summons her chickens. The sound is something like “up, up, up, cup, cup, up, cup”.

No sooner however had a hen entered than he wd. come out of the box, &, standing in front of it, change his utterance to the hushing utterance of the hen when she warns her brood & calls them to lie still beneath her wings. This utterance wd. be some〈thing〉 like ya-a-a-ah ya-a-〈  〉2 Here is a change of “word”—〈    〉 with an understood purpose, & so understood by the hens to which the words were addressed. I may also observe that the call of the poultrywomen to the fowls in a poultry yard to come to be fed, “cup, cup, cup” seems to be taken from the language of the birds themselves—for it is the call of the hen to the chickens to come to her for something she has to give them.

〈    〉 to variation of plumage— 〈five〉 or six years ago. I placed 〈in〉 my yard some game, 〈Do〉rking, Cochin China, Bramah putra, & creve-cœur hens, with only Creve Cœur cocks.3 Among all these there was not a white feather, & all the cocks were raven black. From the first about 10 per cent of all the chickens came either pure white—or white with with several detached black feathers, or, in some instances with black & yellow feathers on a generally white ground. I cd. thus have got a breed of something like tor〈toise〉 shells. All these kinds had 〈    〉 legs like the creve cœur fa〈ther〉

I also found that a small per centage of these half, or quarter bred creve cœurs came marked in a very similar manner to the golden Hamburgh4—& it was in order that I might get a strain of these that I shut up in the old aviary the cock, of whose language I have been giving you a specimen, & the two hens—

I am yrs very faithfully | F. Barham Zincke.

P.S. And when the cock goes into the 〈bo〉x, & turns about in it, & 〈pre〉pares it for the hen, has 〈he〉 not sympathy with her prospective wants? & when does this, & invites her to enter, &, when she has entered, tries to keep her within the box, does he not reason?5


The year and month are established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to F. B. Zincke, 26 May [1876].
In Descent 1: 55, CD had considered bird communication with respect to songbirds, and wrote: The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language, for all the members of the same species utter the same instinctive cries expressive of their emotions; and all the kinds that have the power of singing exert this power instinctively; but the actual song, and even the call-notes, are learnt from their parents or foster-parents.
CD had discussed fowls in Variation 2d ed. 1: 236–89, noting that they all seemed to have diverged from a single type (ibid., p. 236). Most breeders, however, claimed that fowl breeds were ancient and that the kinds bred true even in colour (ibid., p. 242). Dorking and Cochin were breeds of fowl; crève-coeur were a subbreed of the crested or Polish breed; ‘Brahma Pootras’ were a recent breed formed by a cross and were similar to Cochins (ibid., pp. 237, 241, 258). In order to support his claim that all breeds were descended from a single species, CD had noted that the offspring of several crosses exhibited signs of reversion (ibid., p. 255).
CD described the Hamburgh breed of fowl in Variation 2d ed. 1: 238–9.
In Descent 1: 46, CD had stated that all animals possessed some power of reasoning.


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

Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.


On communication noises used by domestic poultry.

Letter details

Letter no.
Foster Barham Zincke
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 184: 10
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10513,” accessed on 28 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 24