Sunday book review – Cuckoo by Nick Davies


Nick Davies is a top-scientist (he is a Fellow of the Royal Society), and a birder, and he was the external examiner for my PhD.  So, he’s quite a guy.

I remember once walking down Tennis Court Road in Cambridge, heading to see a flock of Waxwings which were reported to be nearby. I encountered Nick coming back from having seen them and in our chat he told me that he had noticed that the Waxwings tended to eat about three berries and then take a break from eating.  He watches birds and sees things.

The subject of this book is a marvellous one. The Cuckoo is the only obligate brood parasite amongst UK birds. Cuckoo mothers don’t lift a finger, or a primary feather, to help their young: they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and fool them into doing all the work. If you don’t think that the existence of evil, the existence of Jimmy Saville and the existence of world poverty are arguments enough against the existence of a caring God then the existence of the Cuckoo is quite a contender. Who would dream up such a lifestyle just for a laugh?

Whereas, if animal behaviour is shaped by natural selection then it’s a damn sight easier to understand – and admire.

How do Cuckoos choose their ‘hosts’ – their rather duped ‘hosts’? Why are some species ‘duped’ and others aren’t? How good does the egg mimicry have to be? How does it all work?

The answers to these questions and so many more, are in this book. If you want to understand about this particular bird, and all other birds, then read this book. It is a clear exposition of how to analyse and understand animal behaviour, from aardvarks to zebra because natural selection is what drives it all.  This in-depth exploration of the Cuckoo, will demonstrate to you a way of thinking that can be, and has been, applied to many other species with success. And this study used logic, modelling, and simple field experiments to derive a deep understanding of how the Cuckoo behaviour has evolved – and why the hosts have lost.

So, the subject is fascinating. You won’t realise quite how fascinating until you get into this book. But even the most riveting subject can be made to seem dull or impenetrable by the wrong exposition. This book is the right exposition.

I have always believed that it is only those who deeply understand an issue who can explain it totally convincingly to others. Nick Davies understands the Cuckoo, and evolution, better than most. Much better than most. Much, much better than most.

I remember going to a talk he gave a couple of years ago – on the Cuckoo – and being mesmerised by the clarity of the explanation.  I looked around the room and saw some people transfixed and others looking rather disengaged. The disengaged were wrong, the transfixed were right.

So not only is this a wonderful tale, it has found a wonderful teller of the tale.  The hero of this book is natural selection. The teller of the tale is a hero too. Making something understandable, whilst staying true to the complexity of the subject, is a remarkable skill. Richard Dawkins demonstrated it in The Selfish Gene. Nick Davies, with his feet firmly on the ground, demonstrates it here.  This is a phenomenal tale told phenomenally well.

I’m less impressed, I have to say (well maybe I don’t have to say, but I will anyway) with the illustrations. They don’t live up to the quality of the story and the quality of the telling of the story. I don’t think the illustrator is very good at Cuckoos – particularly in flight. But, you may not agree and in any case it certainly is not a reason to avoid this book which is published later this week.  The photographs are very good though.

Buy this book, read it, and then spread the word that there is a classic out there that should be read by birders and non-birders alike.

Cuckoo by Nick Davies is published by Bloomsbury, as is A Message from Martha and as will be Inglorious.


Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill




Just a few things:


2000th blog here

This is the 2000th blog here. It’s been fun, and we’ve hardly got started yet!

Here are a few personal highlights from the first 2000:



Planning for Hen Harrier Day 2015

BAWC-220-x-220pxEarlier this week, in a secret location (so secret I almost couldn’t find it) a group of people met to talk about Hen Harrier Day 2015.

Much will be revealed at the Birders Against Wildlife Crime Conference in Buxton on the first day of spring (it’s full – no places left).

BAWC will be organising a Hen Harrier Day event in England this year – many thanks to them.  It’s an attempt to ensure sunny weather – I failed badly last year.

#HaveyouseenHenry ?????

getimage-3There are plans afoot for Scotland too.

But there will be a range of social media activities with which you can join in.

And this book, Inglorious, is a part, my part, of the ongoing campaign to ban driven grouse shooting. No it wasn’t a one-year wonder – the campaign goes on.

By the time we get to Hen Harrier day 2015, there will be a new government – what will be their position on field sports in general and grouse shooting in particular, I wonder?  The Greens, who may not be a majority party, are against field sports and Labour seems to have timidly opted for a review of all shooting. A review would be interesting and valuable. You wonder why Labour hasn’t done its own review in the last five years so that it knows what it wants to do – a bit inept I’d say. Maybe they were waiting for my book?



I missed this one

MarthanewcoverIn the February Birdwatch there was a very kind review of A Message from Martha by Rob Hume, a former colleague if mine in the RSPB whom I haven’t seen for many years.

His [that’s me] strength of feeling comes through on every page, but so does the strength of his arguments‘.

No doubt, that’ll be what the Telegraph and Times say about Inglorious too (not).







Inglorious: conflict in the uplands will be available for Hen Harrier Day (9 August), the Inglorious 12th and thereafter.

Published by Bloomsbury in late July – but you can order it now on World Book Day.




Coming soon – Behind the Binoculars

9781784270506This is my next book, and we (it is a joint production with Keith Betton) have just gone through the proofs.  It should be out in early June despite the publisher’s website saying August!

The book is a series of interviews with birders about how they got into birds, what birds mean to them, and in many cases, their professional involvement in birdwatching, ornithology, writing about birds and bird conservation.

Behind the Binoculars includes interviews with: Chris Packham, the late Phil Hollom, Stuart Winter, Lee Evans, Steve Gantlett, Mark Cocker, Ian Wallace, Andy Clements, Mike Clarke, Debbie Pain, Keith Betton, Roger Riddington, Ian Newton, Steph Tyler, Mark Avery, Stephen Moss, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, Rebecca Nason and Robert Gillmor (who also provided the lovely cover).

You’ll be surprised at some of the things that our interviewees said, and some of the things that they have done.



Still Fighting

Fighting for Birds smallThis week is World Book Week, apparently, and Thursday is World Book Day, apparently. I guess the other weeks and the other days are World ‘let’s not read a thing’ Weeks and Days.  Still, it lets me remind you of some books, including this one of mine.

I recently had a lovely email from someone senior in British nature conservation who wrote about Fighting for Birds thus:

Brilliant book and can’t think why it took me so long to get around to read it – brim full of sound analysis and reflection, and some great ideas to boot.’

Fighting for Birds had a string of glowing reviews and its first 26 reviews on Amazon were 5-star ones, until it picked up a 3-star review after Christmas.

Fighting for Birds is published by Pelagic.



Same old song


A reader of this blog was shocked, and somewhat horrified, to find this leaflet flutter out of his Farmers Guardian last week. He cancelled his subscription.


This would be an excellent leaflet to give to a mixed group of students – biology students and media studies students – and ask them to analyse it.

They would quickly, perhaps, notice that the Magpie population increase of 100% is over an unspecified time period, and that the Magpie national population seems to have been more or less level for the last 30 years.

They might need a bit of help to realise that one of the most recent studies in this area was funded by Songbird Survival and found precious little evidence of any impact at all of predators on songbird populations.

It’s a rather special-looking Yellow Wagtail though isn’t it? And that Lesser Redpoll has a shifty look about it…

No doubt, regular reader and commenter to this blog, and boss of Songbird Survival, Keith Cowieson, will explain this to us all.