Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection


It is supposed by some naturalists that the more immediate cause of the instinct of the cuckoo is that she lays her eggs, not daily, but at intervals of two or three days; so that, if she were to make her own nest and sit on her own eggs, those first laid would have to be left for some time unincubated or there would be eggs and young birds of different ages in the same nest. If this were the case the process of laying and hatching might be inconveniently long, more especially as she migrates at a very early period; and the first hatched young would probably have to be fed by the male alone. But the American cuckoo is in this predicament, for she makes her own nest and has eggs and young successively hatched, all at the same time. It has been both asserted and denied that the American cuckoo occasionally lays her eggs in other birds' nests; but I have lately heard from Dr. Merrill, of Iowa, that he once found in Illinois a young cuckoo, together with a young jay in the nest of a blue jay (Garrulus cristatus); and as both were nearly full feathered, there could be no mistake in their identification. I could also give several instances of various birds which have been known occasionally to lay their eggs in other birds' nests. Now let us suppose that the ancient progenitor of our European cuckoo had the habits of the American cuckoo, and that she occasionally laid an egg in another bird's nest. If the old bird profited by this occasional habit through being enabled to emigrate earlier or through any other cause; or if the young were made more vigorous by advantage being taken of the mistaken instinct of another species than when reared by their own mother, encumbered as she could hardly fail to be by having eggs and young of different ages at the same time, then the old birds or the fostered young would gain an advantage. And analogy would lead us to believe that the young thus reared would be apt to follow by inheritance the occasional and aberrant habit of their mother, and in their turn would be apt to lay their eggs in other birds' nests, and thus be more successful in rearing their young. By a continued process of this nature, I believe that the strange instinct of our cuckoo has been generated. It has, also recently been ascertained on sufficient evidence, by Adolf Muller, that the cuckoo occasionally lays her eggs on the bare ground, sits on them and feeds her young. This rare event is probably a case of reversion to the long-lost, aboriginal instinct of nidification.

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