The cuckoo’s clock is tick­ing as they pre­pare to drop off their eggs and fly

You can blame the male bird for that haunt­ing chant, ex­plains Pip Web­ster

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You are more likely to hear a wan­der­ing voice, … no bird, but an in­vis­i­ble thing than see a shy cuckoo, ac­cord­ing to Wordsworth.

The re­turn of this mi­grant from Africa is ea­gerly awaited from mid-April but the res­o­nant ‘cu-coo’ is heard much less fre­quently than in the past.

It is the male that sings its name through­out May (the fe­male is­sues a more sub­dued liq­uid bub­bling sound) be­fore fall­ing silent in June.

The cuckoo is a long-tailed, hawk-like grey bird – slightly big­ger than a col­lared dove – with barred un­der­parts and bright yel­low eyes. It flies low with shal­low, fast wing beats: the wings are not raised above the level of the body, though the head is held up.

You may see a fe­male, perched hor­i­zon­tally with droop­ing wings, near a reedbed, care­fully watch­ing the nest­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of reed war­blers.

She has a sin­is­ter mo­tive, be­ing a ‘brood par­a­site’ of dun­nocks and meadow pip­its as well as the reed war­bler.

Choos­ing a nest with an in­com­plete clutch, she re­moves and dis­cards one of the host’s eggs and lays an egg of her own when the un­sus­pect­ing own­ers are likely to be away feed­ing, hav­ing al­ready laid their egg.

She may lay as many as a dozen eggs at two-day in­ter­vals, each in a dif­fer­ent nest, though she tends to stick to the same host species that she was fos­tered by her­self and which her eggs have evolved to mimic in col­oration.

The cuckoo hatches at the same time, or ear­lier, than the host’s eggs and within a few hours, though blind and naked, sets about elim­i­nat­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. Each egg or nestling is ma­noeu­vred into a hol­low on the chick’s back and heaved out over the side of the nest, leav­ing the cuckoo with the un­di­vided at­ten­tion of its rel­a­tively tiny foster car­ers for the four weeks it takes to fledge.

After egg-lay­ing is com­plete, the par­ent cuck­oos take no fur­ther in­ter­est in their prog­e­nies and the fly back to Africa in July – the ear­li­est of our sum­mer mi­grants to go – leav­ing the young to fol­low by in­stinct in late Au­gust.

Like the cuckoo, ragged robin is not as com­mon as it used to be as many of its favoured damp mead­ows have now been drained.

But you can still find this del­i­cate pink flower waft­ing in the breeze in wet grass­land and marshes, its flow­ers vis­ited by bees and but­ter­flies for nec­tar.

Numer­ous slen­der, hairy stems with nar­row op­po­site leaves grow from a basal rosette of spoon-shaped fo­liage and branch near the top to bear sev­eral flow­ers, 3cm to 4cm across.

The much-di­vided petals have an un­tidy, ragged ap­pear­ance, look­ing like a shred­ded ver­sion of the more fa­mil­iar red campion, and give the plant its name. Its spe­cific name flos-cu­culi means ‘cuckoo-flower’, a name used for plants that flower when cuck­oos ar­rive in spring.

Coun­try girls used to pick sev­eral un­opened flow­ers, give each the name of a lo­cal youth, and keep them un­der her apron. The first to open would tell her who was des­tined to be her hus­band. She could have pro­duced more trou­ble than she planned since another coun­try name was ‘thun­der flower’ – storms would fol­low if the plant was picked.

Roots were a source of saponin, used in place of soap in wash­ing. Care was needed – saponin is poi­sonous and was used by hunters to stun or kill fish in ponds and streams.

Ragged robin is one of many plants that bear “cuckoo spit” when the cuckoo is around.

The white frothy sub­stance is ac­tu­ally aer­ated sap or hon­ey­dew ex­uded by the green­ish larva of the com­mon froghop­per bug whilst feed­ing on the plant.

The foam func­tions to both stop the grub from dry­ing up and as a dis­taste­ful dis­guise.

So it doesn’t all arise from su­per­sti­tious peo­ple spit­ting to avoid bad luck when­ever they hear a cuckoo.

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