Cuckoos May Be Dim, But They Are Strategic

ByABC News
April 19, 2005, 12:07 PM

April 20, 2005 — -- It's been decades since Bob Payne set out on what some might consider an odd quest. As a graduate student in the 1960s, he wanted to know why some birds that are members of the cuckoo family lay their eggs in nests that belong to other birds, and then let the surrogate mom raise their young.

Do they do it because they are clever enough to outwit the other birds, leaving the chores of raising kids up to others? Or do they do it because they are a little, well, cuckoo?

The attempt to answer that question first took him to Africa, and subsequently on at least 20 trips to areas all over the world where cuckoos are found. In this country, he has probed the mating and nesting habits of yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos, the familiar ani, and that rascal carnivore of the desert southwest, the greater roadrunner.

There's still more cuckoos to be studied, but Payne thinks he has his answer. He spells it all out in a massive new book published by Oxford University Press, "The Cuckoos." Payne, who is the curator of birds and professor of zoology at the University of Michigan, teamed up with Michael D. Sorenson of Boston University to unravel the story of a diverse family of birds that has fascinated cultures from early Native Americans to lovers of Shakespeare.

"What we wanted to understand is how this brood parasitism evolved," Payne says. How come some members of the cuckoo family dropped their eggs in the wrong nest, while others raised their own, or still others engaged in communal nesting and thus shared the maternal chores with others?

Payne is an expert on bird songs, and Sorenson is a geneticist, so the two set out to construct an evolutionary tree of the entire cuckoo family. Nobody even knew how many species there were, but the researchers identified 141, and to answer their question they tried to determine which species were the most closely related.

There was some thought that the parasites were closely related to the cuckoos that nest in sort of a commune fashion, so it was only a small leap into parasitism.