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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   18 April [1874]1

Flowers of the Primrose destroyed by Birds

For above twenty years I have observed every spring in my shrubberies and in the neighbouring woods, that a large number of the flowers of the primrose are cut off, and lie strewn on the ground close round the plants. So it is sometimes with the flowers of the cowslip and polyanthus, when they are borne on short stalks. This year the devastation has been greater than ever; and in a little wood not far from my house many hundred flowers have been destroyed, and some clumps have been completely denuded. For reasons presently to be given, I have no doubt that this is done by birds; and as I once saw some green-finches2 flying away from some primroses, I suspect that this is the enemy. The object of the birds in thus cutting off the flowers long perplexed me. As we have little water hereabouts, I at one time thought that it was done in order to squeeze the juice out of the stalks; but I have since observed that they are as frequently cut during very rainy, as during dry weather. One of my sons3 then suggested that the object was to get the nectar of the flowers; and I have no doubt that this is the right explanation. On a hasty glance it appears as if the foot-stalk had been cut through; but on close inspection, it will invariably be found that the extreme base of the calyx and the young ovary are left attached to the foot-stalk. And if the cut-off ends of the flowers be examined, it will be seen that they do not fit the narrow cut-off ends of the calyx, which remains attached to the stalk. A piece of the calyx between one and two-tenths of an inch in length, has generally been cut clean away; and these little bits of the calyx can often be found on the ground; but sometimes they remain hanging by a few fibres to the upper part of the calyx of the detached flowers. Now no animal that I can think of, except a bird, could make two almost parallel clean cuts, transversely across the calyx of a flower. The part which is cut off contains within the narrow tube of the corolla the nectar; and the pressure of the bird’s beak would force this out at both the cut-off ends. I have never heard of any bird in Europe feeding on nectar; though there are many that do so in the tropical parts of the New and Old Worlds, and which are believed to aid in the cross-fertilisation of the species. In such cases both the bird and the plant would profit. But with the primrose it is an unmitigated evil, and might well lead to its extermination; for in the wood above alluded to many hundred flowers have been destroyed this season, and cannot produce a single seed. My object in this communication to Nature is to ask your correspondents in England and abroad to observe whether the primrose there suffer, and to state the result, whether negative or affirmative, adding whether primroses are abundant in each district. I cannot remember having formerly seen anything of the kind in midland counties of England. If the habit of cutting off the flowers should prove, as seems probable, to be general, we must look at it as inherited or instinctive; for it is unlikely that each bird should have discovered during its individual life-time the exact spot where the nectar lies concealed within the tube of the corolla, and should have learnt to bite off the flowers so skilfully that a minute portion of the calyx is always left attached to the foot-stalk. If, on the other hand, the evil is confined to this part of Kent, it will be a curious case of a new habit or instinct arising in this primrose-decked land.

Down, Beckenham, Kent, April 18    Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the date of publication of this letter in Nature.
Greenfinch: Carduelis chloris.
Probably Francis Darwin, who assisted in CD’s botanical researches.


CD has observed hundreds of primrose flowers cut off their stalks, and conjectures that this was done by birds to obtain the nectar. Asks readers of Nature in England and abroad whether primroses are subject to such destruction in their localities.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Nature, 23 April 1874, p. 482

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9418,” accessed on 28 July 2021,

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