Strange Birds and Birds of a Feather
A Guest Blog by Mark Moore
Last week in the journal Science, a team of Spanish and Swiss researchers published the results of a 16-year-long study of two strange birds. The great spotted cuckoo and the crow have long enjoyed an interesting relationship, to say the least. Their relationship goes something like this: the spotted cuckoo sneaks in and lays its eggs in the nest of the crow. The crow then raises and feeds the cuckoo’s young, feeding and caring for it until it leaves the nest. Scientists called this a parasitic relationship, where one benefits greatly and the other sacrifices greatly in the relationship. At best it is a commensal relationship, meaning one benefits and the other is not significantly harmed. At least that was conventional wisdom for the last 50 years or more.
Conventional wisdom, that is, until last week’s paper turned it all on its ear. The Swiss and Spanish researchers noticed something interesting about nests that contained a cuckoo egg. The crows in that nest actually did better! Much better, in fact. At first the researchers suspected that perhaps the cuckoos had some innate ability to pick winners and lay their eggs only in high-performing crow nests. Eventually however, the truth came out; the crows, left to their own devices had poor outcomes in regards to survival of young, but a crow nest with one of those extra cuckoo eggs had young that thrived because of that cuckoo. In reality the crow/cuckoo arrangement is a symbiotic relationship – both benefit because of it.
In my former years working at CCAI, I learned a lot. I learned from my colleagues who, unlike myself, came to the adoption world with substantial awareness, expertise and training in adoption issues. But I learned the most from adoptive parents. I spent hundreds of hours on the phone and in face to face meetings with adoptive parents who taught and inspired me. One reoccurring theme from these parents was a tendency to dismiss any soft soap about what wonderful people they were for taking in an orphaned child. Over and over again, I would sit with moms and dads who sincerely and emphatically said something like, “We may have thought we were doing a good deed when we adopted our son or daughter, but the reality is that it is us who have been blessed.” Turns out it was the old crows who really benefited and their other young were actually saved by the little cuckoo in their nest.
Like any analogy it breaks down fairly quickly, since adoptive parents actually chose to adopt their children and do not just find them in the “nest” one day. In that regard, I should probably note that the researchers discovered that the baby cuckoo’s life-saving effect on a crow nest comes from the fact that they emit such a bad smell that all predators are repelled. That may actually be a handy nature fact to mention someday if your little adopted cuckoo takes too much pride in knowing that his or her presence “saved” your family. Just remind them nicely that it is the odor, not the sweetness, that makes the cuckoo so special. But I’m guessing you will take more joy in telling them the truth about their role in your family; that even if conventional wisdom says, “You were lucky to be adopted,” they should always reply with…“Maybe so! But it was pretty nice of me to save that family! Wasn’t it?”
Mark Moore crowed proudly in various roles for CCAI from 2006 until 2008. He later founded and now runs MANA Nutrition, a company that makes emergency therapeutic food for severely malnourished children. He and his wife Marnie and their entire cuckoo family live in Charlotte, NC.