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Book Review: Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

By (April 24, 2015) No Comment

Cuckoo: Cheating by Naturecuckoo cover

by Nick Davies

Bloomsbury, 2015

Cambridge professor Nick Davies has studied cuckoos, and specifically the cuckoos of Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, for the past 30 years, and in his utterly delightful new book Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature, he comments, “it might seem obsessive to have studied cuckoos for so long in one place …”

The chuckle of course arises from that “might.” It will certainly without any question seem obsessive to have studied cuckoos for so long in one place, but a) Davies hasn’t actually done that – he ranges all over the world to study and track the various species of cuckoos in distant lands, b) he’s done more than simply study them – his researches have markedly advanced our understanding of these remarkable birds and raised valuable warnings about their rapid recent decline in numbers, and c) it’s perfectly normal for bird-folk to be obsessive … of all the dotty devotees of nature, they are the dottiest without doubt. Researchers willing to endure torrential South American rains and stubborn leg-leeches in order to capture lesser bulldog bats (noctilio albiventris) will console themselves by saying, “Well, at least we’re not warbler-people.”

And reading Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature (charmingly illustrated by James McCallum) makes it abundantly clear that Davies’ obsessions run to a much broader natural world than simply the “common” cuckoo to which he’s devoted so much time and energy. True, as he tells us in a passage that will be familiar to all his ornithologically-inclined readers from their own lives, he’s been a bird-watcher all his life:

I was born in the village of Formby, some 15 kiometres north of Liverpool on the coast of northwest England. One of my earliest memories is of putting out food for the birds in the garden at home and the thrill of a close view of a male chaffinch from makeshift hide of wooden chairs. I must have been about six at the time, and I had never seen anything so beautiful. I was hooked for ever …

But he also loves – and could just as easily have written about – Wicken Fen itself, although, hilariously, through cuckoo-colored spectacles:

I love the fens in all its moods; the ever-present sound of reeds whispering in the breeze; the succession of flowers through the seasons, from the pale pinks of lady’s smock that blooms when the first cuckoos arrive in April, to the yellow irises and red marsh orchids in May and June, when cuckoos lay their eggs, to the purple marsh thistles and creamy meadowsweet in July, as adult cuckoos depart for Africa once more …

But the main focus of this book – a classic of natural history that belongs on the same shelf as the books that inspired it, David Lack’s The Life of the Robin and Niko Tinbergen’s The Herring Gull’s World – is the ‘natural arms race’ engaged in by the “common” cuckoo, its longstanding practice of parasitism that has fascinated nature-watchers since Aristotle. The cuckoos of Wicken Fen, like so many of their bloodthirsty kin around the world, are parasites: the mother cuckoo will lay her egg in the nest of a warbler and then exit stage left, never to return. When the young cuckoo hatches, it proceeds immediately to push all the warbler eggs or hatchlings out of the nest and loudly demand food from the baffled but compliant warbler mama. The feeding continues long after the cuckoo dwarfs not only the mother but the nest itself, and Davies has devoted considerable time and attention to figuring out how such an outlandish imposture can happen with such impunity – and by what evolutionary tactics it continues to be possible. Cuckoos modulate their plumage, their calls, even their body language in the pursuit of their negligent-parent arms race, and their victim patsies likewise evolve defensive strategies, and Davies is an erudite and supremely knowledgeable guide to all of it. If you’ve spent your whole nature-watching life hating cuckoos for the whinging, opportunistic jerkwads they are, this book will give you more reasons than you ever dreamt possible to go right on hating them. Although it’s unlikely that was the good professor’s goal.