Cuckoos and cowbirds are amongst the select bird groups renowned as professional parasites, who always lay their eggs in the nests of other species. Occasional parasitic laying is also widespread in many other birds, who gladly parasitise the nests of their own kind when the opportunity arises.
In this fascinating new book, Nick Davies describes the natural histories of all the brood parasites and examines the exciting questions they raise about the evolution of cheating and the arms race between parasites and their hosts. Brood parasites fill their armoury with adaptations including exquisite egg mimicry, rapid laying, ejection of host eggs, murder of host young, chick mimicry and manipulative begging behaviour: ploys shown by recent research to have evolved in response to host defence behaviour or through competition among the parasites themselves. While many host species appear defenceless, accepting parasite eggs quite unlike their own, others are more discriminating against odd-looking eggs and some have evolved the ability to discriminate against odd-looking chicks as well. How does this arms race proceed? Will defenceless hosts improve their armoury in time, or are there sometimes constraints on hosts which allow the parasites to gain the upper hand? And why are so few species obliged only to lay eggs in host nests? Have host defences limited the success of brood parasitism, or is it in fact much commoner than we suspect, but occurring mainly when birds parasitise the nests of their own kind?
All of these puzzles are examined in descriptions of the natural history of each of the groups of parasites in turn. Here is a book with wide appeal, both to amateur naturalists fascinated by this most singular and macabre of behaviours and to ornithologists and ecologists interested in the evolution of ecology and behaviour. The story takes us from the strange tales of folklore to the classic field work earlier this century by pioneer ornithologists such as Edgar Chance, Stuart Baker, Herbert Friedmann and others, through to the recent experimental field work and molecular techniques of today's leading scientists. We visit brood parasites in Europe, Asia, Japan, Africa, Australasia, and North and South America, to look at some of the world's most interesting birds and sortie of biology's most interesting questions, many of which still beg answers from ornithologists in the future.
Brilliant illustrations by David Quinn depict many behaviours for the first time and convey the thrill of watching these astonishing birds in the wild.