‘Cuckoo – Cheating by Nature’ is a non-fiction popular science book written by Nick Davies and published last year (2015) by Bloomsbury, it also contains illustrations by artist James McCallum. I brought this with me on holiday and it has taken me just 8 days to read, testament to how accessible and fascinating this book is – I enjoyed it so much and learned so much that I just had to review it on this blog and hopefully encourage others to read it too.
Firstly, the physical book itself (which I think is quite important to mention in a review). This is a hardback book with a very well designed dust-jacket; featuring an illustration by R. B. Davis of a Cuckoo in the act of parasitising a nest, set on a plain cream background. The title of the book is in metallic light blue and slightly raised and the dust-jacket paper itself is thick and of a rough texture, making it very pleasing in a tactile way to hold in the hand. The paper within the book, on which the text is printed, is on the thicker side and has a grainy texture – again showing quality publishing. There is also a section near the centre of shiny white paper with high-quality colour photographs showing key elements described in the text.
A small point before going into the text itself; each chapter heading and the rear face of the dust-jacket displays a sketch by James McCallum, who spent months in the field to provide these lovely little pieces of observational art. This is an artist with whom I am familiar – having previously read a portfolio book of his containing sketches and watercolours of birds from his arctic expeditions.
Now the author, Nick Davies, is a professor of behavioural ecology at Cambridge – so he really does know his stuff, add to that around 30 years of close study of Cuckoos at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and it would be very difficult to find someone more qualified to write this book. His deep knowledge and experience of the workings of science and experimentation really shows in the text, but at no point does he let the book get bogged down in jargon – it is remarkably readable for a species monograph.
There are fourteen chapters covering all aspects of the Cuckoo’s life story; from the day it shoves its fellow nestlings out into oblivion, to the day that it swoops down into a host nest to lay its amazing mimetic egg. To keep things fresh and to back up some of his theories and experiments Nick Davies regularly takes us abroad to give us case studies and examples of other parasitic birds in exotic locations. These other Cuckoos (not all actual Cuckoos) have equally fascinating behaviour and trickery as ‘our’ European species. In some cases they behave in parallel ways to our Cuckoo and in others they even exceed it in ingenuity.
What strikes the reader most is the level of complexity involved in the way a Cuckoo deceives its host and how the hosts thwart the Cuckoo in return. It almost beggars belief how remarkably complex this evolutionary ‘arms race’ has become – which makes Nick Davies’ unraveling of it all so incredible an achievement (no wonder it took 30 years, and there is still more to discover!).
Yet Davies is humble in his explanations and never fails to give recognition to the observations and work of predecessors such as Edgar Chance – the man who first filmed and proved irrevocably the secret ways that the Cuckoo parasitises the host nest. I don’t want to give a list of the brain-boggling facts revealed in this book as enticement, it would be best to read them yourselves and experience the wonder I felt as I read it – rather like exploring an uncharted cave system full of secrets, each chamber more incredible than the last – except Nick Davies has done all the hard work for you.
I feel that in recent years we have been increasingly blessed with some high-quality popular science books that are bringing the latest scientific discoveries (especially in the natural world) out of the inaccessible (for most) journals and into a public-friendly format. This latest entry by Nick Davies is continuing this encouraging trend and has set the bar very high indeed – this is possibly the best natural history book I have read. Not just for the quality of the writing but for the enormous, pain-staking, innovative work and experimentation that is behind this book – a huge clap on the back to all involved and a thumbs up to Bloomsbury for supporting projects like this, more please.