My reputation was at stake, as nearly every man, woman and child that I bumped into had heard the Cuckoo. When I explained that I had yet to hear its distinctive call they give me strange look, and stated that it had been singing all day around their houses. Despite numerous walks into the countryside I failed to find this elusive spring visitor. But things have a habit of turning up when you least expect them.
I was out the front enjoying the beautiful evening sunshine, and watching the kids making mud bombs. I already had the water on for a bath, and we just getting ready to go in when I heard a Cuckoo calling from the nearby valley. I dropped everything and strained my ears just to make sure I wasn’t imagine things, but the cuckoo had saved my blushes and I can hold my head high the next time I met my neighbours.
The Cuckoo comes to us in late April and departs by July. The males arrive first and immediately start to call to establish a good territory. For most birds this has to contain good nesting spots and enough food to raise a family. For Cuckoos all they want is plenty of nesting birds where they can sneak in one of their own eggs. The females arrive a few weeks later and are attracted to males who have picked good territories. Time is so short so little time and energy are wasted mating as she will need all her strength for egg production.
Unlike other species they do not build a nest or take any part in the demanding role of parenting. The female will stake out the nests of Meadow pipits and Dunnocks. She has to get her timing just right. As soon as the parent birds are distracted, she quickly flies in, grabs an egg in her mouth and deposits one of her own. If caught in the act the host parents will often abandon their nest or eject the Cuckoo egg. I recently read that Starlings have the same behaviour. Young females who are mated don’t have the resources to raise their chicks so they place their eggs in another Starlings nest.
The egg of the Cuckoo is similar in size and colour and this fools the birds into thinking that the egg is one of their own. The Cuckoo egg hatches before any of the others and driven by some inbuilt instinct pushes any other egg or chick out of the nest. It now has the full attention of the parent birds and its appetite is unrelenting. When fledged it will head back to central and southern Africa where it passes the winter on open savannas,
Cuckoos feed on insects like caterpillars and beetles but are not fussy and will catch any insect that is com in their territory. They can be found in a wide range of habitats from costal, grassland to upland. Once there are host species around the Cuckoo will be watching. They have declined over the last 20 years and this is probably due to a decrease in the range of its main preferred host species, the Meadow pipit.
While the call might be distinctive the bird is shy and not often seen. They are often mistaken for a sparowhawk as they have a similar body shape. Cuckoos wingbeats are more rapid and their wings to not raise above their body during flying.
Males have all Grey back, neck, wings and tail with white underbody with black baring. Females come in two forms. The grey morph resembles the adult male while there is also a Rufus form. She has a loud bubbling call.
Cuckoos ae in the same family as the Roadrunner, and people of a certain vintage will remember watching this cartoon on TV.
Human culture has many references to Cuckoos. In Greek mythology it was sacred to the God Hera who was responsible for women and marriage. In India they represented love and desire and in Japan unrequited love. In Ireland they are a sign of unfaithfulness.
The Cuckoo is a famous English folk song and has been recorded by artists like Bob Dylan and Rory Gallagher. I can only remember a few lines,
The Cuckoo is a pretty bird,
She sings as she flies,
She brings us glad tidings,
And tells us no lies
Swallows may bring the summer with them but the Cuckoo is the one who proclaims it across the countryside.
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