Book of the Week: Cuckoo

What is Book of the Week? See the first Book of the Week post.

Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

cuckooby Nick Davies, with field drawings by James McCallum. Published by Bloomsbury, 2015.

Shelfmark: BI/076/004 (Birds-Cuculidae (cuckoos)-4th book in this section)

This week, our book celebrates the cuckoo, a bird viewed by many as the herald of spring, announcing the changing seasons with its familiar call. The species features prominently in literature, in folk song and, additionally, has proved a popular subject for scientific study. On Thursday 21 April the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and the BTO are hosting an event that will bring together many of those working on cuckoos from across a suite of disciplines. Those speaking/performing at the event include: Michael McCarthy (journalist and author of Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo), Dr Chris Hewson (studying cuckoo migration), Malcolm Green (storyteller), Toby Smith (photojournalist), Sara Zonneveld (studying upland cuckoos), Dr Claire Spottiswoode (studying African cuckoos) and Geoff Sample (sound recordist). For more information, including the programme and booking information, visit

Just like last week’s Book of the Week, Cuckoo is written in narrative form and accessible to all. Nick Davies has been studying the evolutionary ‘arms race’ between cuckoos and their hosts for 30 years. Davies combines the story of how we came to understand the cuckoo today, with results of the latest research and cultural snippets. Did you know the first written record of the cuckoo in Britain comes from an eighth century monk? Or how to make a model cuckoo egg?


Beloved as the herald of spring, cuckoos have held a place in our affections for centuries. The oldest song in English celebrates the cuckoo’s arrival, telling us that ‘Sumer is icumen in’. But for many other birds the cuckoo is a signal of doom, for it is Nature’s most notorious cheat. Cuckoos across the world have evolved extraordinary tricks to manipulate other species into raising their young. How do they get away with it?

In this enormously engaging book, naturalist and scientist Nick Davies reveals how cuckoos trick their hosts. Using shrewd detective skills and field experiments, he uncovers an evolutionary arms race, in which hosts evolve better defences against cuckoos and cuckoos, in turn, evolve novel forms of trickery. This is a fascinating corner of Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’, where creatures are continually evolving to keep up with changes in their rivals.

Lively field drawings by James McCallum, and remarkable photographs, show cuckoos in action: from the female cuckoo laying her beautifully disguised egg, to the cuckoo chick ejecting the host’s eggs and young from the nest to ensure it gets the full attention of its foster parents.

Cuckoo offers a new insight not only into the secret lives of these extraordinary birds, but also into how cheating evolves and thrives in the natural world.


1 A cuckoo in the nest
2 How the cuckoo lays her egg
3 Wicken Fen
4 Harbinger of spring
5 Playing cuckoo
6 An arms race with eggs
7 Signatures and forgeries
8 A cheat in various guises
9 A strange and odious instinct
10 Begging tricks
11 Choosing hosts
12 An entangled bank
13 Cuckoos in decline
14 A changing world

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