Friday, July 24, 2015

Cuckoo by Nick Davies


Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies. New York, Bloomsbury. 2015. 289pp. ISBN: 978-1-40885-656-7

This book of researches on the brood predation of Cuckoos comes highly lauded by experts in the field. It merits such for its science and history. It also is such a well written book that it is nearly soothing to read. When Davies did a half an hour program on BBC his voice and mannerism lent fodder to the notion of assuasiveness. Here is my proof. The book has all of the elements that good science writing should have.

It is accessible, Davies did not fill pages with arcane details such as raw data or spectrograms. Yet he explained his field studies in a rather eloquent prose. He and his field mates were diligent in their science but Davies described their efforts in nearly a poetic way, all the while one imagines he is whispering. His artist-James McCallum renders cuckoos, marsh wrens and other imagery beautifully throughout the book.

The science is very sound throughout the book. He explains his own work with enough detail to inform the reader without overwhelming them. He also explains many scientific concepts that have to do with evolutionary changes the cuckoo has made as well as those who are the victims of their predation. It is all an arms race as the cuckoo attempts to find victims and the other birds attempt to thwart them. The cleverer the cuckoo evolves likewise does its victims. The tales of egg mimicry are particularly interesting. Some cuckoos have evolved to lay eggs that mimic those eggs of particular species and other cuckoos select their own different species. Simultaneously the predated birds are finding new ways of discovering the methods of detection so that they can continue spawning their own species.

He inspires a sense of awe and wonderment in the reader by asking a lot of questions about Cuckoo behavior. Some of his questions he can answer due to his experiments or those of others. Some await future experimentation. Through the book we know that Davies is not satisfied that answers are complete. Experimental results lend credence to suggestions stemming from questions but we cannot be cajoled into assuming that they are foolproof. Davies uses his science to imply and infer ideas based on results. Nothing is proved to satisfaction and the reader is reminded that future studies may lead estimations of Cuckoo behavior in different directions.

It is fascinating to read about how a cuckoo chick that is nearly blind, has the wherewithal to evacuate the nest of any other bird so that they can take full advantage of the nurture of their predated mother. Davies careful observation is proved correct from the photos that enhance the book.

It also provides a lot of science history and personalities. He often cites the Gilbert White the 18th century “parson-naturalist” whose books are in eminent domain and available to read just as Edward Jenner’s (of smallpox vaccine fame)  article on brood parasitism for the Royal society. Much curiosity the reader may have about his original sources can be met on the internet.

The book is replete with information and curiosities and so well presented that it was hard to put it down. Probably, somewhere in all of the text there is something wrong but it was not detected in my reading. This one proved to be one of the very best science books on a particular bird that I have read and I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in that sort of thing.

There are few science writers that with clarity for the popular reader. The details of research, experiments as well as comradery of fellow field workers all make for not just a pleasant experience. Writers like Davies inspire the reader to learn more. They enhance the reader’s ability to discover much in the natural world nearby even for urbanites.

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