Picture, of a baby cuckoo being fed by a reed warbler, taken from the Wikipedia entry on brood parasites.
Can you search e-readers for specific keywords? Because that would be a vast improvement over the conventional book. I'm forever wanting to find an interesting bit of text in a long, long book and not being able to. Right now I am devouring A. S. Byatt's latest, The Children's Book, which is a very full, almost too full, novel -- it contains oodles of characters and themes and lots and lots of information about the Edwardians. Parts of it are loosely based on the life of E. Nesbit and it makes me want to go back and read her biography, A Woman of Passion, again. (I see I read it only last year and that my ideas about her are most likely hopelessly mixed up with ideas about Simone de Beauvoir and Mavis Gallant. Some people have minds like steel traps. I have one like a steel sieve.) There are a number of fascinating tidbits in The Children's Book and the one I have finally managed to locate in order to share today is about the breeding habits of cuckoos. In this scene, the children of Olive Wellwood (the character based on E. Nesbit) are having a nature studies lesson from Olive's sister Violet (a character based on E. Nesbit's friend -- and her husband's lover -- Alice Hoatson).
'They make no nests. They borrow. They lay their eggs secretly in other birds' nests, among the other eggs. The mother cuckoo picks the foster mother carefully. She lays her eggs when the foster mother is fetching food. And the foster mother -- a willow-warbler, maybe, a bunting perhaps, feeds the stranger fledgling as though it was her own, even when it grows much larger than she is, even when it is almost too large for the nest, it cries for food, and she answers...'
'What happens to her real children?' asked Hedda.
'Maybe they leave early,' said Violet vaguely.
'It pushes them out,' said Dorothy. 'You know it does. Barnet the gamekeeper showed me. It pushes the eggs out, and they go splat on the ground, and it pushes the fledglings out. It goes round and round and shoves with its shoulders, and tips them out. I've seen them on the ground. And the parents go on feeding it. Why don't they know it isn't theirs?'
'It's surprising what parents don't know,' said Violet. 'It's surprising how many creatures don't know their real parents. Just like Hans Andersen's ugly duckling, which was really a swan. Mother Nature means the baby cuckoo to survive and fly away with the other cuckoos to Africa. She takes care of it.'
'She doesn't take care of the willow-warblers,' said Dorothy. 'If I were the willow-warbler, I'd let it starve.'
'No you wouldn't,' said Violet. 'You'd do what comes naturally, which is feed what's crying out for food. It's not so easy to decide who are your own real children.'
'What do you mean?' said Dorothy, sitting up.
'Nothing,' said Violet, retreating. Then, almost sotto voce, she said... 'Who is a child's real mother? The one who feeds it, and cleans it, and knows its little ways, or the one who leaves it to the nest to do the best it can..."
Dorothy could hear Violet's thoughts, as she had heard Philip's. This was not the first time Violet had spoken this way. She said, turning to science for help
'It's just natural instinct. For the cuckoos, in their way, and the willow -warblers in theirs.'
'It's the kindness at the heart of things,' said Violet. She stabbed at the sock with a needle. Charles said, in an audible undertone
'Lots of people aren't really their parents' children, don't really know who their real parents are, you hear about it all the time --'
'You shouldn't be listening to such things,' said Violet, with a return of force. 'And folks shouldn't be telling you.'
'I can't help having ears,' said Charles.
'Then you'd better wash them,' said Violet.
Hedda took up her shoe-dolls. 'All these have no father or mother, only a shoe. They are mine to look after.'
Something had become very uncomfortable. Tom put his nose in his Latin. Griselda proposed to Dorothy that they go for a walk in the woods. Charles said he would come, and Tom.
'Cuck,' said the cuckoo in the wood. 'Cuck, cuck, cuck.'
'It's funny,' said Dorothy, 'how it knows it's a cuckoo when it comes to flying to Africa, it goes with the cuckoos. I wonder what it thinks it is, when it goes. It can't see itself.'
This conversation is, of course, a clever bit of foreshadowing. Alice Hoatson was the real mother of two of the five children who were supposed to belong to E. Nesbit and her husband, Hubert Bland. Alice lived with the family and oversaw the housework and childrearing.
But I was most taken with the strange and clever behaviour of the cuckoos. Imagine that first cuckoo mother to try it. "Oh my god," she thinks with her little birdbrain. "What have I done? I have no idea what to do with this egg and once it hatches, yikes! Here, let me see if I can fool this lady into thinking it's her egg." The amazing thing is that it works. I guess it takes a village to raise a child -- or just one really stupid reed warbler.