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.


5 Replies to “Sunday book review – Cuckoo by Nick Davies”

  1. “how the Cuckoo behaviour has evolved – and why the hosts have lost”

    I guess the battle is still ongoing and host species are under selection pressure to better discriminate between their own and the cuckoo’s eggs.

    Sadly, the ‘war’ may yet be decided by other factors altogether if the cuckoo continues to decline and disappears from our summers in the countryside.

  2. A great review by a great blogger of a great book, bar one thing! I think the illustrations are great – just wish they could have been given more space. I think James McCallum is one of Britain’s most talented wildlife artists. If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t have bought at least 10 of his paintings!

    That aside let us hope this book helps champion the conservation of a bird that in North Norfolk last year I sadly only heard once!

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