A review by Donna Schulman
Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, by Nick Davies
289 pages, $27–hardcover
I wonder how the word “cuckoo” ever became associated with simple-mindedness or insanity. The titular species of this book, the Common Cuckoo, is one of the cleverest birds around and one of the most fascinating to read about. It is also, judging from the number of studies, a fascinating bird to research, and the behavioral ecologist Nick Davies has spent most of his professional life doing just that. In Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, he knits together stories of his and other scientists’ studies, presenting them through a lens that is alternately historical, anecdotal, and evolutionary. The result is a book rooted in experimental science but written in an elegant, humanistic voice that both informs and challenges our ideas of bird behavior.
The behavior for which the Common Cuckoo is famed is obligate brood parasitism. Females of this species deposit their egg in the nest of another bird, which then incubates the egg and raises the cuckoo chick. (“Obligate brood parasitism,” incidentally, is the only scientific term Davies uses in this book; “obligate” distinguishes the Common Cuckoo’s behavior from that of the “facultative” brood parasites, including our North American cuckoos, that only occasionally lay eggs in the nests of other birds.) This is a strategy for survival employed by more than 100 bird species around the world, including five cowbird species and 59 cuckoo species (about 40% of all species in the cuckoo family); it is also found in fish and insects. The relationship between the cuckoos and their host species has been described by scientists as an “evolutionary arms race,” in which the parasite and its host continually up the ante each time one develops a new way to outwit the other.
Davies structures Cuckoo as a “nature detective story,” guiding the reader through the how and why of each stage of cuckoo trickery and host defense. He dissects the avian arms race from egg laying to host incubation to foster fratricide. The book is loosely divided into three parts. Following a survey of the cuckoo’s role in the scientific and humanistic literature, the author recounts his work with Common Cuckoos and Eurasian Reed Warblers at Wicken Fen, one of England’s oldest nature reserves. The book concludes by sketching a philosophical portrait of cuckoos and their hosts as part of a complex natural process, which leads into an urgent discussion of how climate change and habitat fragmentation are affecting birds’ behavior and status, including the decline of the Common Cuckoo in England.
Davies’ chapters on cuckoo research are an engaging, though sometimes slow-moving, narrative that seamlessly combines history, biography, experimental design, and scientific results. An entire chapter is devoted to the quirky oologist Edgar Chance, who in 1921 filmed a cuckoo laying her egg in the nest of a Meadow Pipit, solving a centuries-old question: No one had dreamed that the cuckoo actually lays the egg directly in the nest! Moving ahead to our own century, Davies is particularly enthralled, and so was I, by the work of Claire Spottiswoode, who has studied mimetic egg signatures and whose films of Greater Honeyguide chicks killing Little Bee-eater nestlings made scientific news in 2012. (The films by Chance and Spottiswoode are easily found online.) Equally interesting are studies showing that females of some parasitic cuckoo species tend to specialize in just one specific host species, laying the groundwork for the evolution of distinct cuckoo subspecies.
Davies describes his own research in detail. What runs deep through all of his experiments with ceramic eggs, loudspeakers, and fake cuckoos on sticks is a deep love of basic fieldwork—observation of nature using eyes, paper and pencil, and, he tells us, a good stick for gently separating reeds and finding nests. The evolutionary arms race may be the main theme of this book, but the value of observational research, and the need to preserve the habitat in which to do it, is just as prominent.
I’ve never seen a Common Cuckoo, though I heard one several years ago in the French forest of Fontainebleau. So I was happy that Cuckoo includes photographs of this secretive species taken by Richard Nicoll (at Wicken Fen) and by other contributors. In addition, full-page drawings by James McCallum grace the beginning of each chapter, and his small silhouettes separate the sections within each chapter. McCallum’s charming and realistic watercolor of a cuckoo about to lay an egg in a Eurasian Reed Warbler’s nest, holding one of the host bird’s eggs in her bill while the warbler protests, is a most appropriate cover.
Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature is a model of popular scientific writing. Davies never anthropomorphizes his subject (the “cheating” in the title refers to evolutionary trickery, not conscious dishonesty), his personal revelations are always relevant to the book’s objective, and he writes simply and intelligently. The chapter notes in the back of the book carefully cite each quotation, experiment, and paper. The index allows the reader (and the book reviewer) who has lost track of cuckoo tricks, scientific hypotheses, or scientists to quickly pinpoint the page needed.
Like many North American birders, I’m most familiar with obligate brood parasitism as exhibited by the Brown-headed Cowbird. I was surprised that Davies doesn’t cite some recent cowbird studies; the scientific debate about “mafia-type” retaliatory behavior, for example, seems tailor-made for a book on the evolutionary arms race. I also wondered why there was nothing here about management policies designed to protect endangered species from brood parasitism, but then remembered that this was covered in Davies’ Cuckoos, Cowbirds and Other Cheats (Poyser 2001).
Despite these omissions, Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature has given me new insight into our oft-maligned brood parasite. That image in my head—we all have one—of a petite Yellow-throated Warbler feeding a Brown-headed Cowbird chick, so huge that it overflows the nest, now inspires less horror and more appreciation of the larger forces at work. The study of the cuckoo—traditional symbol of insanity and infidelity, aural sign of the coming of spring, and a real-life survival strategist—brings the complex and vibrant ways of nature into high relief, and Davies does a wonderful job of communicating it all with affection and intelligence.
–Donna Schulman is a librarian, recently retired; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations; and a New York / New Jersey birder, sometimes distracted by dragonflies. She has reviewed over 150 books, at first on labor and women’s studies, and now on birds and nature.
Schulman, D. 2016. An Intelligent and Affectionate Look at the Cuckoo [a review of Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, by Nick Davies]. Birding 48 (3): 66.