Pa­trick Barkham cel­e­brates the long-stand­ing res­i­dents that make up Bri­tain’s rich fauna This month CUCK­OOS

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Pa­trick Barkham cel­e­brates Bri­tain’s rich fauna. This month: cuck­oos

A FOOTLOOSE WAN­DERER FROM TRURO TO TIMBUKTU, set­tling nowhere for more than a cou­ple of months. A pro­mis­cu­ous par­ent, who dis­dains to raise young and du­pes smaller crea­tures into ma­ter­nal du­ties. A noisy caller whose voice is a unique song of spring. The cuckoo may seem as­ton­ish­ingly im­moral but that is to an­thro­po­mor­phise an in­no­cent an­i­mal. The real mir­a­cle is that this slim grey bird ex­ists at all. The lifestyle it has cho­sen is pe­cu­liar and al­most ridicu­lously pre­car­i­ous.

Our re­la­tion­ship with the cuckoo be­gins at this time of year with its “cuck-coo” call. One note is a noise but two notes are a tune, and this sound “is the most re­mark­able noise in the nat­u­ral world”, ac­cord­ing to Michael Mccarthy, au­thor of Say Good­bye to the Cuckoo. It’s a per­fect mu­si­cal in­ter­val: a de­scend­ing mi­nor third. “Be­cause it’s a mi­nor third, it has a mourn­ful note,” he says. “Oc­ca­sion­ally a cuckoo sings in a ma­jor third, which is less mourn­ful. And cuckoo clocks chime in a ma­jor third, which is why they are so an­noy­ing.” It may be mourn­ful, but the call, like the bird, is also strangely dif­fi­cult to lo­cate. Wordsworth cap­tured its elu­sive­ness:

O blithe New-comer! I have heard, I hear thee and re­joice. O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wan­der­ing Voice?

Un­sur­pris­ingly, there is some­thing witchy about the cuckoo, which is rarely seen and eas­ily con­fused with a bird of prey. Its call has prophetic qual­i­ties in folk­lore – a French say­ing suggests that if you hear a cuckoo and have money in your pocket, then you will be rich all year; many other Euro­pean tra­di­tions sug­gest that the bird can fore­tell your longevity or when you will marry.

In Bri­tain, we only hear its wan­der­ing voice when it ar­rives to breed. Dur­ing a spring dawn, or dusk, the male’s mourn­ful, sonorous call can be heard a mile be­yond. A fe­male will pair with more than one but the species is re­ally famed for what comes next. Eigh­teenth-cen­tury nat­u­ral­ist Gil­bert White ad­mired the fe­male’s craft in lo­cat­ing nests be­long­ing to suit­able species in which to deposit its eggs. But he den­i­grated its “mon­strous out­rage on ma­ter­nal af­fec­tion”.


This bird’s par­a­sitic par­ent­ing was only fully re­vealed by cuckoo ob­ses­sive Edgar Chance, who named his daugh­ter Car­damine after the sci­en­tific name of the cuckoo flower, and amassed a col­lec­tion of 25,000 birds’ eggs, in­clud­ing 25 from a sin­gle fe­male cuckoo dur­ing one breed­ing sea­son. In 1922, Chance dis­patched chil­dren to watch nests on a Worces­ter­shire com­mon to de­duce which the cuckoo would visit. Hid­ing in a fake stack of hay, he suc­cess­fully filmed The Cuckoo’s Se­cret, a ground-break­ing doc­u­men­tary. Per­haps Chance em­pathised with the cuckoo’s out­law sta­tus: his egg col­lec­tion even­tu­ally led to his ex­pul­sion from the Bri­tish Or­nithol­o­gists’ Union.

His film re­vealed the bird’s cun­ning ap­proach – plac­ing sin­gle, colour-matched eggs into nests while drop­ping or de­vour­ing her fos­terer’s own eggs. We re­coil from pic­tures of diminu­tive reed warblers or meadow pip­its feed­ing baby cuck­oos that are mon­strously big­ger than they are – a Pathé News film of Chance’s work was en­ti­tled The Home Wrecker. The cuckoo lends its name to other do­mes­tic de­cep­tions: for in­stance, to be a cuck­old, a man whose wife is adul­ter­ous, is seen as a hu­mil­i­a­tion.


There are, how­ever, still more cuckoo se­crets to dis­cover. Un­til a few years ago, a tra­di­tional rhyme held that…

In April, come he will, In May, he sings all day, In June, he changes his tune In July, he pre­pares to fly In Au­gust, away he must

Satel­lites proved this wrong, though. In 2011, sci­en­tists led by Dr Chris Hew­son from the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO)

put GPS tags on the birds. Be­fore the tag­ging, there was just one clue about where the cuckoo flew: a young­ster ringed in a pied wag­tail’s nest in 1928 was later re­cov­ered in Cameroon (well, the ring was; the bird was taken for the pot). But satel­lites re­vealed a more com­plex pic­ture. Cuck­oos aren’t heard in July be­cause most are half­way to Al­ge­ria by then. While we orig­i­nally thought they trav­elled only as far as West Africa, the truth is that they jour­ney a great deal fur­ther. One (named Chris Pack­ham) spent win­ters in the swamp for­est of the Congo Basin, but on his third win­ter abruptly re­lo­cated to An­gola, a fur­ther 1,000km away. Satel­lite tags re­vealed that it rarely stayed in one lo­ca­tion for more than two months. The BTO’S re­search re­vealed that cuck­oos mostly re­turn to their Bri­tish breed­ing grounds but choose two dis­tinc­tive mi­gra­tory paths: birds from south­ern Eng­land leave later and take a shorter, western route via Spain. Birds from north­ern Bri­tain take a longer, eastern route, leav­ing ten days ear­lier to com­plete it. Un­ex­pect­edly, Hew­son has found sur­vival rates on the eastern route to be sig­nif­i­cantly higher; birds on the west­erly route are strug­gling.


Be­sides its call, par­ent­ing and globe-trot­ting, the cuckoo’s diet is its fi­nal odd­ity. It de­vours hairy cater­pil­lars – so hairy that the giz­zards of dis­sected cuck­oos can look furry. Mostly th­ese are large moths, such as Em­peror moths. Sci­en­tific data re­veals that, south of Lan­caster and York, moth pop­u­la­tions fell by 40 per cent over 40 years but num­bers held up in north­ern Bri­tain. Michael Mccarthy believes it is no co­in­ci­dence that north­ern cuck­oos are sur­viv­ing, while the cuckoo has vir­tu­ally van­ished from south-east Eng­land, where agri­cul­tural in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion has dec­i­mated moth pop­u­la­tions. How­ever, while th­ese dif­fer­ent re­search projects have un­veiled el­e­ments of the bird’s hid­den life, Hew­son believes we still have a lot to learn about th­ese enig­matic crea­tures: “We have con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that what we know is not the whole story.” It is cer­tainly mourn­ful that the cuckoo’s call is no longer so widely heard, but there is some­thing heart­en­ing about the fact that there is still such mys­tery sur­round­ing this re­mark­able bird.

A reed war­bler (Acro­cephalus scir­paceus) feed­ing a 12-day-old Euro­pean cuckoo chick in its nest in the East Anglian Fens

ABOVE Hairy cater­pil­lars are a favourite meal for cuck­oos TOP A Euro­pean cuckoo (Cu­cu­lus canorus) in flight over North Uist in the Outer He­brides

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