The cuckoo is Nature's most famous cheat, regularly manipulating and deceiving other species into raising their young. Nick Davies exposes these generally plain-looking birds to be some of the most cunning and inventive creatures in the natural world. Using shrewd detective skills he reveals the astonishing and beautiful adaptations that have taken place in the cuckoos' long battle to keep on outwitting their hosts. While the hosts are developing better defences, the cuckoo is constantly coming up with novel forms of trickery, and Nick Davies, who has studied cuckoos for three decades, is our guide to unraveling how and why these are taking place.
Beloved as the herald of the European spring, heard but rarely seen, known in folklore as a great cheat, the details of the cuckoo's life have until now been shrouded in mystery, and Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of these superficially unassuming and ordinary birds.
1 A cuckoo in the nest 1
2 How the cuckoo lays her egg 19
3 Wicken Fen 41
4 Harbinger of spring 55
5 Playing cuckoo 77
6 An arms race with eggs 99
7 Signatures and forgeries 115
8 A cheat in various guises 139
9 A strange and odious instinct 153
10 Begging tricks 177
11 Choosing hosts 191
12 An entangled bank 215
13 Cuckoos in decline 229
14 A changing world 247
Notes to the chapters 259
Nick Davies is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Pembroke College. His cuckoo research has been presented on BBC 4 Radio, and as a BBC film, produced by Mike Birkhead and narrated by David Attenborough. His previous books include Cuckoos, Cowbirds and other Cheats that won Best Book of the Year from the British Trust for Ornithology and British Birds Magazine.
"[...] a rich, enjoyable and enlightening read that is never heavy but is definitely one of the most rewarding bird books I have read."
– Chris Hewson, BTO News, issue 314
"This amazing detective story by one of the country's greatest field naturalists is also a fascinating study that solves many of the puzzles surrounding this most extraordinary bird"
– Sir David Attenborough
– Country Life
"Davies' beguiling account of his 30 years' cuckoo-watching on the East Anglian fens brings a far more sensible and revelatory approach to the subject. Davies is a leading field naturalist whose work will be known to Radio 4 listeners. He frames his research and discoveries as "a nature detective story", a natural history-mystery [...] The tale features astonishing insights into the processes of both evolution and scientific research, and it beguiles because of Davies' plain, personable style and his relating of his own experiments [...] the reader is taken nest-hunting, fake-egg planting and landscape-gazing. Rich, tactile description is lightly burnished with the poetic while illustrations by watercolourist James McCallum complete a package that will suit both dedicated twitcher and armchair naturalist alike, and gives springtime's feathered friend and fiend a fair hearing at last"
– Richard Benson, Independent
"The cuckoo [...] is also nature's most notorious cheat. Ever since Aristotle noted [...] that "it lays its eggs in the nest of small birds after devouring these birds' eggs", people have been appalled by its parasitic behaviour and puzzled by how on earth, given its disproportionate size compared with its hosts, it gets away with such brazen dissembling. In this fascinating piece of natural-history detective work, Nick Davies, professor of behavioural ecology at Cambridge University, looks at how it does it [...] Davies is a hugely knowledgeable and readable guide, whose reasoning is often fascinating [...] This is a fine and involving book, whose insights – wrung from decades of hard graft and constant questioning – make you wonder again at nature's extraordinary ingenuity"
– Sunday Times
"Charming [...] Reveals how Wicken's reed warblers are locked in an evolutionary arms race in The Fens with the female cuckoo"
– John Ingham, Daily Express
"A new book tells in mesmerising detail how the host birds are first outwitted by the female cuckoo, and then by the cuckoo chick. Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature is by Nick Davies, the world expert on Cuculus canorus, the Eurasian cuckoo, our bird. He gives a riveting account not only of how the cuckoo evolves deceptive stratagems, such as eggs which mimic the eggs of the host, but also of how the host birds evolve defences, such as learning to reject any eggs which seems slightly different from their own. This is in effect an "evolutionary arms race" and its complexities are elucidated with exemplary clarity and humour by Professor Davies [...] An even more fascinating take on curious behaviour. I've just read it, and it's a terrific read"