Enchanted by the cuckoo’s singing PETER FROST looks into this unique bird’s lifestyle and how it has impacted on our folklore and beliefs.
THERE is not a finer sound on a summer’s day than the distinctive call of a cuckoo. I have heard scores of them but I have actually seen very few. Like another favourite waterside bird of mine the booming bittern, the cuckoo is much more likely to be heard than seen.
This elusiveness certainly adds to the character of this bird so beloved in song and story.
The cuckoo song, popular on both sides of the Atlantic goes back centuries. A common version goes: “The cuckoo’s a pretty bird, she sings as she flies./ She brings us good tidings, tells us no lies./ She sucks the little birds’ eggs to keep her voice clear,/ And when she sings ‘cuckoo’ the summer draws near.”
There is a copy in the Bodleian library Oxford from the early Middle Ages — it is in Chaucarian Middle English and believed to be the first English folk song to be written down and recorded.
Along with many English ballads this song was taken to the US by English settlers where it became a standard part of the repertoire of many country, folk and other US singers including, of course, Bob Dylan.
In the US the song wasn’t altered much but did manage to slip in patriotic last line “and it never sings cuckoo till the fourth day of July” — Donald Trump says it was obviously Made in US.
As well as the common cuckoo, the same one we have in Britain (Cuculus canorus), the US has about 17 other species of cuckoo — some with amazing names.
These include Bay-breasted, Black-billed, Chestnut-bellied, Cocos, Dark-billed, Dwarf, Gray-capped, Great Lizard, Hispaniolan Lizard, Lesser Ground, Mangrove, Oriental Pearly-breasted, Pheasant, Puerto Rican Lizard, Squirrel, Striped and Yellow-billed cuckoos. That’s a lot of cuckoos.
We have just one, well actually about 16,000 breeding pairs of just one species, the common cuckoo.
Cuckoos can be seen throughout Britain, but are especially numerous in southern and central England. ?
They are a dove-sized bird with blue grey upper parts, head and chest with dark barred white under parts. With their sleek body, long tail and pointed wings they are not unlike kestrels or sparrowhawks. They eat insects and are especially fond of hairy caterpillars.
Since 2011 the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has been running a project tracking cuckoos by satellite to find out why we have lost over half of their population over the last 20 years.
The Broads National Park (below) is one of many partners in this project and some Broad’s cuckoos have been tagged and tracked by satellite. National Park rangers report on where the birds are calling and then skilled scientists and BTO volunteers — with permission from landowners — use mist nets to catch the birds and attach the satellite tracking devices.
From this tracking the BTO has garnered vital information about the routes cuckoos take and some of the difficulties they face during migration, including those caused by changing climate.
This year cuckoos at Carlton Marshes in the Broads were tagged. Both a male and, for the first time, a female, were fitted with the super lightweight tags.
The male cuckoo was named Carlton and you can follow Carlton’s progress along with the others at the BTO website http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking.
Cuckoos arrive in Britain in the spring to breed. In early June the adults begin to leave and the young birds head south later too in search of insects to feed on.
There are two routes south which most of the cuckoos follow on their 4,000-mile journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, where they spend the winter.
Some fly over Spain and Morocco, others go east over Italy and the Balkan countries. On the way to the European breeding grounds in the spring all the tracked cuckoos take the same route across West Africa.
This is probably to take advantage of food available there at that time due to the heavy rainfall and insects breeding.
There is extensive folklore concerning the cuckoo like for instance “on hearing the first cuckoo in spring to ensure good luck one must run three times in a circle.”
In folklore the cuckoo’s nest is a euphemism for the female sexual organ and the word cuckold is used for a man whose sexual partner, often his wife, has been unfaithful.
An alternative meaning for cuckoo’s nest is a mental institution. This has become the commonest meaning since the Ken Kesey novel published in 1962 and the 1975 Milos Forman film based on it, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The nymphs of the Frog Hopper insect surround themselves in a white foam on stems of grass known as cuckoo spit.
Best known fact about the cuckoo is of course the laying its eggs in other bird’s nests so that they will bring up the young cuckoos and who throw the host birds own young out of their own nests.
Ornithologists call them brood parasites — the females choose the nests of other birds especially meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers. A single cuckoo can lay up to 25 eggs in a season.
This unprincipled behaviour is only found rarely in other wild creatures but one recent case involves Tory MP Michael Gove.
Just two hours before Boris Johnson was preparing to make his Tory Party leadership bid Mr Gove, the man who was supposed to be making up the dream ticket with him stabbed him in the back.
Lynton Crosby, the Tory election strategist, and most of his called Gove’s move a “cuckoo nest plot.” Bit harsh on the cuckoo I reckon.
Might I suggest the Tories set off to fly away to the Congo at the end of every summer. Or would that be too cuckoo an idea?
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 17 July 2017.