Nature is unbelievably complex. Not a day goes by that I don’t encounter something new. Behaviour, insect, anything… It’s always fresh.
Before we dive too deep into a well of cliche, I will state that I find the not knowing, appealing. And it’s less about simply looking up a species of wild flower that I’ve forgotten, or asking a more experienced ranger why a zebra is doing what it’s doing, as it is about the abstract questions that initiate a discussion; more than likely one which won’t have a definite conclusion. The debate more than knowing the answer is what I find enjoyable.
Take cuckoos for example.
They’re arriving thick and fast at the moment (they’re migratory, which is its own black hole of questions) and in the last week I’ve seen at least three species for the first time this season.
A cuckoo sighting for me is utterly fascinating, even if the bird is simply sitting there calling.
Brief cuckoo backstory: they are brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in the nest of other bird species, which in turn end up raising the cuckoo chicks. This allows the cuckoos to lay multiple eggs during a season as they don’t have to dedicate time or energy to parental care.
Their strategy is well known (the what and the why), but it’s the how that can have a full Land Rover sitting for a good hour surmising on the nature vs. nurture debate pertaining to these birds.
The simply put life-story goes like this: A cuckoo chick will be raised by a parent of a different species. It will be fed by that parent on foodstuffs that it probably won’t eat in later life, its exposure to its own species will probably be no more than hearing their distant call (amongst literally hundreds of other different species’ calls), then it becomes independent and when the weather gets cold it will know to fly a few thousand kilometres north (assuming it’s born in Southern Africa). It will hop around for awhile when it gets there and again when the weather turns in a few months or when the food starts to run out, it will turn around and fly the same few thousand kilometres back south, where it will call like the parents it never met, feed on hairy caterpillars that it probably didn’t get fed on when being raised, find a mate from the same species it has probably not interacted with and know how to get its egg into the nest of probably the same host species that raised it.
No one taught it all this, and that’s a heck of a lot of stuff to know how to do just from instinct.
So as much as rangers and trackers will deliver a fascinating cameo presentation on what a cuckoo does, I’m sure all of their heads are spinning – just like mine – at the thought of how it all actually comes about.
Do the generalist species only parasitise the species that raised them? (tricky to know unless you GPS-track the same individual).
Do their eggs (that often match the host’s eggs) differ from cuckoo to cuckoo of the same generalist species?
I’m sure the answers to many of these questions are out there because many must have asked the same questions I ask myself, and have actually gone on to study the birds, but I haven’t yet plumbed the true cuckoo depths I’m ashamed to say.
And cuckoos are just the tip of the iceberg for me. A drive or a walk through Londolozi is a never-ending stream of questions, that invariably lead to more questions, and just when I think I have the next one figured out, or at least have a theory in place, I’ll say to myself ‘Yes, but…” and down the rabbit hole we go…
Truth be told, if I ask a question and there is a straight answer, I’m almost disappointed as a debate is unlikely to be forthcoming.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this, I guess I just encourage everyone to dive a little deeper. Even the most seemingly mundane parts of nature can open into a maze of unknowns and question marks if you start unravelling the layers, and it truly is a wondrous journey of discovery.
Don’t stop at the “what” and the “why”. Ask “how?”, keep digging, and be happy if you can’t actually get to an answer, because that’s where the real fun lies…