Cuckoos calling in spring

I heard my first cuckoo last week, walking out by the Anchor pub. Have you had the chance to hear one yet? In the days when people didn’t have diaries or smart phone calendars, hearing the first cuckoo call would have been like the radio announcement ‘the clocks go forward this weekend’ – after the dark days of winter, spring is here!

Cuckoo. Photo by Chris Romeiks.

As soon as I mentioned hearing a cuckoo my friend Malcolm Creese (director of the fabulous Swaledale Festival https://www.swalefest.org/) sent me a text in reply: ‘It has to be Delius’. Written in 1912, here is Delius’ ‘On hearing a cuckoo in spring’ performed by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=delius+cuckoo&&view=detail&mid=A3B48613D973C8ED51DEA3B48613D973C8ED51DE&&FORM=VDRVRV.

While a cuckoo’s call is distinctive, and travels a long way, seeing a cuckoo is much harder. William Wordsworth describes how elusive they are to see:

List ’twas the cuckoo O, with what delight Heard I that voice! and catch it now, though faint, Far off and faint, and melting into air, Yet not to be mistaken. Hark again! Those louder cries give notice that the bird, Although invisible as Echo’s self, Is wheeling hitherward…’

Extract from ‘The Cuckoo at Laverna’.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has a brilliant video on identifying a cuckoo here https://www.bto.org/develop-your-skills/bird-identification/videos/cuckoo. For me, I know it is a cuckoo when I see a a small pigeon sized bird in flight which is not raising its wings above its body.

The number of plants named after cuckoos reflect how widespread and abundant cuckoos once were – I wrote about cuckoo-pints yesterday, for example. The late Geoff Parr, who lived round the corner from us, told me cuckoos used to be regularly heard in Burwell. That was when there were orchards throughout the village, providing additional income for farm labourers, who sent the fruit on the train from Burwell into London. My mother, who lived in Southery, said ‘there were so many cuckoos you didn’t take any notice.’ Now to hear one we need to be walking on the edges of the village, to hear ‘Cuckoo, Cuckoo’ calling across the Fen.

There are also numerous rhymes and folk-lore related to cuckoos. As I passed – at a good distance – a family group, we shared our delight at hearing a cuckoo. They said that they should have had cash in their pockets – explaining that in Bulgaria where they were from, having cash in your pocket when you hear a cuckoo brings luck. I’d be glad if you’d let me know if you know of more traditions like that.

The rhyme below gives a clue to Cuckoos’ unusual approach to bringing up their young – they get other birds to do the work, leaving themselves free to fly off to Africa in July!

The cuckoo comes in April,
He sings his song in May,
In the middle of June he changes his tune,
In July he flies away.

Cuckoo egg in a reed warbler’s nest at Wicken Fen, copyright Richard Nicoll.

As I am sure you will know, cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird species’ nests.The cuckoo chick hatches and evicts the eggs and/or chicks of the host bird. The cuckoo chick then calls at a sufficient rate to mimic that of the four or so chicks the parent birds were expecting to have. This makes sure that its host parents feed the cuckoo chick at the rate it needs.

Reed warbler feeds a cuckoo chick, Wicken Fen. Copyright Richard Nicoll.

While the host birds can be very suspicious of an unusual egg, once the chick has hatched, they are far too committed to bringing up any chicks in their nest that they fail to notice that the cuckoo chick rapidly becomes grotesquely larger than their own chicks would have been – and than themselves. As a seven year old, I remember watching a robin sitting on the back of a fledged cuckoo chick, feeding worms into its demanding mouth.

Nick Davies has extensively studied cuckoos at Wicken Fen. His book ‘Cuckoo, Cheating by Nature’ (2015) is a fabulous read, giving an insight into how the host birds – here mostly reed warblers – try and protect themselves from the parasitic cuckoos, and the strategies cuckoos use to fight back. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/cuckoo-9781408856567/ Nick Davies is brilliantly describing what is happening on our very doorstep!

“This amazing detective story by one of the country’s greatest field naturalists is also a fascinating study that solves many of the puzzles surrounding this most extraordinary bird” –  Sir David Attenborough

The number of cuckoos in the UK has halved in the last twenty years. To help understand the causes of their decline, the BTO has satellite tagged some cuckoos and followed their journeys . We are able to watch ‘live’ as these cuckoos travel to the UK from their wintering base in the Congo basin. https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/cuckoo-tracking-project. The birds are named and watching their journey can become addictive. Here is the latest news of Cuckoo Carlton II:

Carlton II didn’t linger for long at the Burnham Beeches Golf Club, by 3pm yesterday afternoon he was passing Bungay in Suffolk and by 530pm he was close to Great Yarmouth. The last updates received early this morning show him just a few miles north-west of his breeding and tagging site at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Carlton Marshes nature reserve and close to the village of St Olaves.  This completes Carlton II’s migration which covered a distance of approximately 16,700 km (10,377 miles) from Suffolk to Gabon and back again. 

For a bit of mathematical fun, how about working out how many laps of your garden/ trips to Lanes bakery/ journeys to school/work it would take for you to have done Carlton’s mileage. Then work out how long it would take you, and compare with how long it has taken Carlton. These birds are phenomenal!

Nick Davies can mimic cuckoos by calling ‘Cuckoo’ into his alternately cupped and open hands. Have a go. I’ve just been trying myself and have heard my daughter Nathalie saying to Ian, my husband in the next room ‘she’s gone Cuckoo…’.

Time I stopped!

NB For more wonderful wildlife photos, many from Wicken Fen, see www.richardnicollphotography.co.uk.

In response to this post, Malcolm Creese sent me a Japanese Haiku poem he wrote, that received highly commended in an international competition.

With only two notes               

the cuckoo says more than the      

blackbird ever can                    

たった二言で

カッコウは

ツグミより多くの歌を

Malcolm says, the idea is that some people talk an awful lot but don’t say much, and others can speak two or three words and it means much more.

For more of the entries see https://akitahaiku.com/2010/12/03/the-results-of-the-12th-hia-haiku-contest-2010-3/

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