aba events

Announcing the 2016 ABA Awards Recipients!

The ABA Board of Directors recently voted to make three presentations of ABA Awards in 2016. The awardees… [read more]

Announcing the 2016 ABA Awards Recipients! Announcing the 2016 ABA Awards Recipients!

2016 AOU Check-list Proposals, Part 1

It's time, once again, for split and lump season, or at least the first part of the long prelude to changes… [read more]

2016 AOU Check-list Proposals, Part 1 2016 AOU Check-list Proposals, Part 1

The TOP 10: Craziest ABA Vagrants of 2015

By Nate Swick and George Armistead For the last couple years the annual Top 10 Best Vagrants post… [read more]

The TOP 10: Craziest ABA Vagrants of 2015 The TOP 10: Craziest ABA Vagrants of 2015

Introducing the 2016 ABA Bird of the Year!

We're excited, at last, to share this year's ABA Bird of the Year and artist. Thanks to artist… [read more]

Introducing the 2016 ABA Bird of the Year! Introducing the 2016 ABA Bird of the Year!

Photo Quiz: December 2015 Birding

Hmm... Well, it's a decent photo, and the bird is well presented. This can't be all that hard, can it? It's… [read more]

Photo Quiz: December 2015 Birding Photo Quiz: December 2015 Birding

The ABA’s Spark Bird Project Puts Binoculars in the Hands of Kids

What could a kid discover if they had the tools we birders often take for granted? What could they find? Birds,… [read more]

The ABA’s Spark Bird Project Puts Binoculars in the Hands of Kids The ABA's Spark Bird Project Puts Binoculars in the Hands of Kids
Nikon Monarch 7

An Affectionate and Intelligent Look at the Cuckoo


A review by Donna Schulman

Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, by Nick Davies

Bloomsbury, 2015

289 pages, $27–hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14645

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.

Davis, Cheating by Nature - coverDavies 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.

BINbuttonCuckoo: 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.

MJW_7719Donna 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. 

Recommended citation:

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.

The Most Evil Photo Quiz Ever


You’ve heard of The Most Interesting Man in the World, yes? Well, Amar Ayyash is on anybody’s shortlist for The Most Interesting Birder in America. Not just interesting, but generous, intelligent, and, in his way, as All-American as they get. To see what we mean, read the interview with Amar in the June 2016 Birding.

During the final stages of production for the June issue, we had to bump an article. Disaster! What to do? Well, I got on the phone with The Most Interesting Birder in America, and begged him for an article. As in: Amar, can you deliver the whole thing by tomorrow evening?

What can I say?–He came through, big time.

The premise of Amar’s article is disarmingly simple: Go to your local ball field or fishing pier, and look at gulls. Do it in the summer. Right now. What could be simpler? And, yet, if you know gulls, you know that gulls in summer–bleached, battered, and blastered by sun and surf–are perhaps the greatest ID challenge for American birders. You’ve heard of birders who “don’t do” gulls? Well, even some gull enthusiasts–they’re called “larophiles”–don’t do gulls in summer.

Isn’t that ironic? What could be more simplistically, essentially American than seagulls by the beach in summer? We all notice them. But how often do we try to put names to them? Here’s your chance. Amar took this photo along the coast of Massachusetts in July of 2015. You can almost smell the surf and feel the sea breeze. You can hear the idle banter–can’t you?–of beach goers, and the life guard’s whistle. And seagulls squealing. It’s so…simple.

Well, what are they?

Gulls at Race Point Beach, Massachusetts, July 20, 2015. Photo by © Amar Ayyash.

Gulls at Race Point Beach, Massachusetts, July 20, 2015. Photo by © Amar Ayyash.


In discussing the gulls in this photo quiz, please refer to the numbering scheme in this image.

In discussing the gulls in this photo quiz, please refer to the numbering scheme in this image.


Before we get going, how about a hint? See if you can ID the gulls in this image, taken at the same place and on the same date. If you get these three, you’re well positioned for the flock of 56.

Gulls at Race Point Beach, Massachusetts; July 20, 2015. Photo by © Amar Ayyash.

Gulls at Race Point Beach, Massachusetts, July 20, 2015. Photo by © Amar Ayyash.

2016 Duck Stamp on Sale NOW. Make Birder Voices Heard.

For the last two years, we at the ABA made the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, known far and wide as the Duck Stamp, available through our own store. We hoped this would give birders an opportunity to vote, as it were, for how they want their voices to be heard as consumers of [read more…]

Show Your Work[*]

Remember word problems in math? “Ava runs 3 meters per second; her friend Ella runs 3.5 meters per second. Ava starts 100 meters ahead of Ella…” If you’re a 4th grade math savant, you already know the answer: 3 minutes, 20 seconds.

The thing is, We’re not all 4th grade math savants. The rest of [read more…]

Conservation and Community in Northern Mexico

The 2016 issue of Birder’s Guide to Conservation & Community features an article written by Jennie Duberstein called “Conservation and Community in Northern Mexico”. Many people know Jennie from her work with ABA’s Youth Birding program, but she spends much of her time working in northern Mexico with the Sonoran Join Venture, a cooperative, regional [read more…]

Rare Bird Alert: June 24, 2016

Continuing rarities have mostly cleared out this week, though the incredible Arizona trio of Pine Flycatcher (1st ABA record), Tufted Flycatcher (ABA Code 5), and Slate-throated Redstart (4) continue to be found reliably. The Pine Flycatcher is now sitting on a nest, and there are some speculation that it has bred with a nearby Cordilleran [read more…]

Into the Home Stretch: $2500 Matching Challenge for ABA’s Nesting Season Appeal Announced!

We’re in the homestretch for our 2016 Nesting Season Appeal, with just 10 days left to reach our goal of raising $25,000 to support the ABA’s Young Birder programs. We’ve had a very good response thus far, and are solidly past the halfway mark. For those of you who have donated already, THANK YOU!

[read more…]

ABA Area Big Years: June Update

We’re just about halfway through 2016 now, and the three birders we featured last time are still pushing onward towards their goal of 700, and in the case of a couple, to beat Neil Hayward’s record of 749, set in 2013. The impressive year continues as rarities continue to turn up around the ABA Area [read more…]

The Big Night, Take 2

A little more than a year ago, some friends and I attempted a “Big Night” in Boulder County, Colorado: non-stop birding from sunset, 8:16 pm, on Saturday, May 23, 2015 till sunrise, 5:39 am, on Sunday, May 24, 2015. In those nine hours and 23 minutes of darkness and semi-darkness, we experienced lightning and thunder, [read more…]

Blog Birding #278

Warbler watching season is coming to a close, as the birds have mostly found their way to dense stands of boreal forest, or southeastern swamps, or western mountainsides, but Al Batt, excepted at Out There With the Birds, still suffers from warbler neck.

I assume the warbler-watching position—feet spread comfortably, binoculars tipped towards the tops [read more…]

We have raised 78.42% of our $25,000.00 goal:

Support the ABA Young Birder Programs with a suggested $5 donation during our Nesting Season Appeal. Even a small amount can make a big difference!
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments




ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow ABA on Twitter