The Kookaburras’ Song

THE KOOKABURRAS’ SONG is a book of questions, ponderings, and brief and enjoyable excursions through the very strange goings-on in the animal world of Australia. Alcock’s position is that “evolutionary questions are far easier to devise than to answer,” but that “a good question can be even more nourishing food for thought than a good (well-tested) conclusion.”

Why does the male mallee fowl build and tend a five-yard-wide nest mound for about ten hours a day, while the female merely drops by to deposit an egg from time to time? How did the complicated nest-building technique of the green weaver ants evolve, in which hundreds of adult ants pull leaves into place while others use larval ants as living glue sticks to weave the pieces together? Alcock considers these questions in brief, good-humored essays which include mini-travelogues and discourses on Charles Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and others who offer conflicting theories on animal behavior.

Australian wildlife is unquestionably fascinating; visits to places named Dorrigo and Warrumbungle to view flying foxes and fairy penguins are refreshing journeys. Alcock’s “Darwinian adaptationist” stance wears a little thin, however, for a general reader, as it relates each of these mind-boggling behaviors to its “reproductive value.” One also wishes that creatures such as the male lyrebird, with its spectacular “fan of thin golden feathers,” or the red-tailed black cockatoo had been given a color photograph or illustration rather than the black-and-white line drawings which accompany each chapter.