Magazine article The Spectator

'Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature', by Nick Davies - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature', by Nick Davies - Review

Article excerpt

Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature Nick Davies

Bloomsbury, pp.320, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408856567

In recent years there has been a fashion for so-called 'new nature writing', where the works are invariably heavy with emotion, while the descriptions of place and wildlife often serve as a hazy green backcloth against which the author depicts the main subject --their own personalities.

It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to find a new nature book that returns to a traditional format. It's one in which the character of the writer barely intrudes and the real subject, picked apart in meticulous detail, is nature itself. In the hands of a scholar who is also a first-rate storyteller, you realise just how entertaining such a work can be. Nick Davies's Cuckoo is a model of that genre -- part gripping detective story, part evocation of place and season, but also a glorious reminder of the sheer wonder of our planet and all its strange life forms.

Yet it is hard to imagine a more fascinating theme. The cuckoo's cultural place in Britain is loaded with superlatives. It's the source of the oldest song in the language ('Sumer is icumen in') and, aside from the lark and nightingale, it has also given rise to the greatest body of folklore, myth and literary reference of any bird. However, what makes the creature such a tailor-made topic for the behavioural ecologist is the weirdness of its reproductive strategy, which Gilbert White called 'a monstrous outrage on maternal affection'.

Based at Wicken Fen, the National Trust reserve in Cambridgeshire, Davies has unravelled some of the key mysteries of this secretive creature. It was not until the 1920s that ornithologists even knew how female cuckoos got their eggs into the nests of their unsuspecting hosts. Two false theories had sufficed for decades: that they either laid them on the ground and then regurgitated them or popped them in with their beaks.

It was a Midlands businessman, Edgar Chance, who finally caught the act on film after years of extraordinarily diligent fieldwork. Turns out that the bird lays it in the traditional way, but so quickly that no one had realised what was happening. The prospective mother can swoop down, land on the nest, squirt out an egg, take one of the host's eggs and fly off in just four seconds.

Not only does Davies unravel all this background history to cuckoo studies, but it is his personal field work that has identified why there is such need for speed. …

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