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
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.