A Meadow Pipit feeding a fledgling cuckoo (Photograph: Charles Tyler)

Stranger in the Camp

25th March 2016

The cuckoo may be the herald of spring, but it’s also nature’s most notorious cheat, as evidenced by the old saying ‘a cuckoo in the nest’. Jack Watkins enjoys an engrossing account of these extraordinary birds.

If you are prone to the occasional desolate thought in the dreary, leafless, colourless dead of winter, then a few brief notes of birdsong, if only the modest chirrups of sparrows, are like messages from the heavens. Despair not, brighter days are on the way, they seem to say. The sound of the cuckoo is to be greeted with even more optimism, a confirmation that winter’s capes can begin be cast off with the arrival of spring.

Humans have probably been listening out for cuckoos to announce the new season ever since our ancestors walked out of Africa into Eurasia many thousands of years ago, writes Nick Davies, in Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature, a book almost universally cheered by critics when published last spring, and now out in paperback. The British, greatest nation of bird lovers, seem to have noted the timings of their returns from African wintering grounds with especial watchfulness. Up until 1940, The Times published ‘first cuckoo’ letters every year (the birds usually return in April, but have been heard in February).

However, Mr Davies, a professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Cambridge, who has been studying the species on Wicken Fen for over thirty years, has produced a book which he wants you to read like a nature detective story. In it he investigates how the cuckoo has evolved into one of the natural world’s great deceivers, the mother never raising its own offspring, but cunningly visiting the temporarily unguarded nest of a ‘dupe’ species – most usually that of a meadow pipit, reed warbler or dunnock, quickly removing an egg and laying one of her own – all done in a matter of seconds. The trickery isn’t confined to the adult cuckoo. Once the chick has hatched, it heaves out the host bird’s eggs or chicks, leaving it as the recipient of all the attention of the ‘foster’ parent. How on earth, Davies asks, do they get away with it?

In fact, we’ve known that the cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other species since Aristotle’s day. It’s been the subject of conjecture and bafflement for generations of observers. The Reverend Gilbert White, author of the 18th century classic, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, was not alone in regarding the bird’s activities as ‘a monstrous outrage on maternal affections, one of the first great dictates of nature’. No-one, up until Davies, however, went to such lengths to explain the cuckoo’s methods to the wider public than the eccentric figure of Edgar Chance, whose film The Cuckoo’s Secret, made in 1921, was one of the first wildlife films ever made. (Viewable for free here: www.wildfilmhistory.org/film/296/The_Cuckoo’s+Secret.html)

Much patient observation across several summers from 1918 had enabled Chance to capture, with the help of a newsreel cameraman, the moment when the cuckoo deposited her egg in the nest of a meadow pipit. Chance was so obsessed with the subject he even slept out on the common where he conducted his research so that he could rise at dawn in an attempt to catch the cuckoo in the act of egg laying. In the event, the cuckoo had managed to dupe even him, for he eventually realised the activity took place in the afternoon. The next sequence of film shows the cuckoo chick two weeks later, sharing the nest with baby pipits which it then ejects, leaving it as the sole recipient of the attention of the apparently unconcerned mother pipit. It was this that so enraged early naturalists as being entirely contrary to the right order of things. As the photos in the Davies book illustrate, by the time the fledgling cuckoo is nearing the moment of departure, it is six times the size of the foster parent, who yet blithely continues to bring food for it.

A clubbable fellow in plus fours, shirt and tie and tweed jacket, Chance should be remembered as an early hero of ornithology (the eggs he collected on Pond Green Common, Worcestershire, are now carefully displayed in the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring), but his story does not have a happy end. Although collecting eggs of common birds was not illegal back then, Chance’s activities did not stop there. In 1926, not long after his pioneering film caused such a stir at its first screening, he was prosecuted and found guilty of taking the eggs of the scarcer crossbill. Although Chance seems to have been collecting the eggs in the belief he was assisting the curator of Reading Museum, his reputation was tarnished and his death in 1955 was virtually ignored by the ornithological community. It’s to Davies’s credit that he restores him to his perch. There’s a lovely coda to his chapter on Chance where he visits Pound Green Common, imagining his predecessor ‘working here 90 years ago in his tweed suit and tie’. At one point a male cuckoo flies overhead, calling loudly before leaving Davies ‘alone on a silent common, saluting the memory of Edgar Chance’.

If people do the same for Davies in decades hence, it will be to Wicken Fen that they must go. In an age where many naturalists prefer the laboratory to the open air, Davies operates happily in the open fields, armed solely with a stick, binoculars and notebook. He admits that looking at the remarkable paintings of Eric Ennion taught him as much about how to look at birds as new scientific theories.

He explains how, every year, he marks out a territory of the fen to observe, just before the reed warblers and cuckoos return. As he describes his work in this remote location, you feel you are with him, probing away while the breeze rustles the reeds. If you have ever wondered how a naturalist goes about their work – the long hours of methodical preparation, the hours of waiting, watching, and poking about in the most unlikely of areas – the insights here are invaluable. Davies also paints us a picture of this landscape, the territory where the outlaw Hereward the Wake once hid, overlooked by Ely Cathedral which, when the mist is low, looks ‘like a great ship, sailing across the fens’. There’s self- deprecating humour, too. He tells us that when the local National Trust warden advised him that an old man with a stick had been seen searching for nests in his study area, he spent a restless night worrying about it until dawn brought the realisation that the ‘old man’ must have been him.

Davies wants to find out why, not how, the cuckoo behaves in the way it does. Rather than the host species being helpless stooges, he argues they are in constant evolutionary competition with the cuckoos. He calls it ‘an arms race with eggs’, the observation of cuckoos and their hosts offering a window onto the ‘entangled bank’ arising from natural selection that Charles Darwin described in The Origin of Species.

Cuckoo numbers are declining though: by 65% since as recently as the 1980s. As Davies says, that’s ‘a potent symbol of the diminishing natural world.’ Although flora and fauna have always adapted to environmental changes, the pace in recent years as a result of human activity is unprecedented. On the fens, though, areas of wetland are slowly being extended, offering hope that conservation can make a difference.

The book ends with Davies back on his beloved observation grounds, preparing for another spring, awaiting the arrival of the first cuckoo once again. Just as the bird’s song offers the prospect of warmer times, in this era of carnivore capitalists who don’t seem to give a jot about the long-term future of the planet, this book offers just a chink of hope that they don’t hold all the cards.

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