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Cuckoo's Secret, The (1922)


Main image of Cuckoo's Secret, The (1922)
35mm, black and white, silent, 1,034 feet
ProducerEdgar Chance
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films
PhotographyOliver Pike

Observations of the breeding habits of the cuckoo.

Show full synopsis

Oliver Pike, who photographed this first episode in the Secrets of Nature series, was the world's greatest pioneer of bird cinematography. He first filmed birds in their natural habitats in 1907 and had developed a specialism in this area leading to a long career with the biggest producer of those days, the Pathé Company. In 1922 Pike went to work for his friend Bruce Woolfe at British Instructional Films as part of a team of enthusiasts and experts in the field of science and nature film.

This inaugural film, The Cuckoo's Secret, solved an age-old mystery concerning one of our most fascinating native birds. Pike wrote in his book 'Nature and Camera':

It is generally know that this bird makes no nest, but allows others to incubate her eggs and rear her young. The generally accepted theory, and it has held good for over a thousand years, is that she laid her egg on the ground, picked it up with her beak, and carried it to the selected nest... Photography showed an astonished world of nature students that the Cuckoo lays her eggs into the nest exactly the same way as other birds,that is by sitting upon it in the normal way.

Despite Pike's involvement and expertise, it seems to have been director Edgar Chance who was the project's hero, named repeatedly in the intertitles as the discoverer of the 'secret'. A keen ornithologist, Chance published his book 'The Cuckoo's Secret' that same year.

However, the film's reception was not without controversy. Stuart Baker, in the July 1922 issue of 'The Auk', the journal of the American Ornithological Union, thought that the film proved that the Cuckoo laid its egg elsewhere and then deposited it in the other bird's nest, removing some of the existing eggs to make room. Baker claimed: "So accurately did Mr Chance forecast the day and the nest in which the Cuckoo would lay, that he was able to place a motion picture operator in a blind, and secure a film of the performance."

Chance seems to have been rather protective of his status as Cuckoo expert - he was still bickering with Baker as late as 1942. as this Time article reveals:

British ornithologist, Edgar P. Chance, now resident in New Jersey (...) brushes off Ornithologist Baker's study as academic. "Stuart Baker," Chance explains, "is not steeped in cuckoos. Most of his knowledge of cuckoos comes from books."

Bryony Dixon

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (17:11)
Cliff Climbing - The Egg Harvest of Flamborough Head (1908)
Family of Great Tits, A (1934)
Glimpses of Bird Life (1910)
Pike, Oliver (1877-1963)
Early Natural History Filmmaking
Secrets of Nature (1922-33)