Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature


As spring approaches and one’s ears become attuned to hearing the first Common Cuckoo of the year, this book is published – well-timed to fill the gaps in your knowledge about this charismatic and complex species.

With lively, ‘jizzy’ line drawings from Norfolk artist James McCallum which capture the ‘vibe’ of the field, the author takes us on a lively stroll through the life history, behaviour and folklore of this obligate brood parasite.

Beginning with some generalities about the cuckoo family and early observations of the species’ behaviour, Nick Davies draws on the familiar writings of Gilbert White and Charles Darwin, as well as the genetic research of modern workers, to elucidate how cuckoos get round their host’s defences and fool the surrogate parents into raising their giant incubus of a chick.

Constantly he returns to his own observations of cuckoos hosted by Reed Warblers at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, giving the book a personal and local feel throughout. This contrasts pleasingly with the science and history interwoven in each chapter. The author is often reminding or informing us of lost pieces of birding culture, such as Edgar Chance’s 1921 movie The Cuckoo’s Secret, the first time the egg-laying of Common Cuckoo was recorded on film, or Swinnerton’s observations on cuckoo egg colour, first published in The Ibis in 1918. 

The narrative swings from the Ice Age to present day, and from Africa to England, much as the species itself has done over the centuries. It presents an informed, informative and readable diversion, tying together many threads as the chapters progress through the seasons, and we see the ‘arms race’ between brood parasite and host take shape with depth and insight.

The book arrives bang up to date with the preliminary findings of the British Trust for Ornithology’s radio-tracking of ‘Lyster’, ‘Chris’ and other tagged cuckoos as they (hopefully) find their way to and from tropical Africa and Britain every year. This scheme has been adding to our knowledge of cuckoo movements every season, signalling previously unsuspected staging posts and migration routes.

There have been several recent books on cuckoos, their evolution and behaviour, but none so readable and engaging. Davies uncovers the behavioural deceptions of the species in a rambling biological detective story that will keep you guessing on the different ways these parasites cheat other species.
  • Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2015).
  • 289 pages, 21 colour photographs, 16 line drawings, one map.
  • ISBN 9781408856567. Hbk, £16.99. Birdwatch Bookshop from £14.99