Welcome the cuckoo’s return
EVERY spring a minor miracle happens in Argyll – as it does elsewhere in the country.
No, not the council filling in potholes or resurfacing narrow, dead- end roads which have become beaten and broken highways, but the arrival, so sure and regular that we scarcely notice it, of thousands of birds, large and small, familiar and unrecognisable, songsters and silent, who find their way to and fro across thousands of miles guided by that mysterious something called instinct.
Among them all, there is none so popular or as welcome as the cuckoo. Although our knowledge about nature and our connection with the land is less than it used be, the call – ‘cuc-koo, cuc-koo’ – ringing through the woods reminds those of us who still happen to be hefted to the countryside that spring is really here at last, and summer not so very far away. It is an event which Dr John Maclachlan of Rahoy (1804-74) portrayed so well in his famous Gaelic song, Do’n
Chuthag – a welcome to the cuckoo.
Unlike many other so- called harbingers of spring, the cuckoo is seldom premature. The March cuckoo, it has been said, appears first ‘in the newspapers’ – that is in the days when rural communities vied with each other to be the first to give notice of their arrival in the local press.
Although cuckoos do occasionally come in March, April is certainly well on its way before the familiar call is heard with any regularity.
I have a note of one being heard on February 10, 1882, at Kinlochleven and Rannoch Moor and in Appin the following day, but these must be exceptional as records for that time and place indicate the weather was wetter and colder than average.
The earliest I have a note of in Morvern this year is the middle of the month at Laudale on the south shores of Loch Sunart; since then others have been heard at Drimnin, Savary, Lochaline, Doirenamairt and Ardslignish in Ardnamurchan. An old rhyme describes the cuckoo’s time in Britain: ‘In April I open my bill, in May I sing night and day, in June I change my tune, in July far far I fly, in August away I must.’
It is said to leave Uist on St Peter’s day, June 29. Some years ago I heard a cuckoo calling at Old Ardtornish in September and wrote to a well-known London newspaper announcing this unusual phenomenon. My letter was not published but the editor was kind enough to send me a personal note saying that, as it was some time since he stopped publishing letters about the first cuckoo, he was not about to start recording the last.
What is it about the cuckoo that attracts so much attention? First, for those who are technically minded, they are a member of the order Cuculus canorus belonging to a family of birds called passerines, that is perching birds, but, unlike typical passerines, they have what is known as a zygo- dactyl foot, ie, one in which the toes are two and two instead of only one hind toe.
Secondly, this handsome bird, which is often mistaken for a kestrel or a merlin, is a brood parasite. It lays its eggs in other birds’ nests and leaves the host birds to incubate and rear its young but not before mother and fledgling murder the lawful occupants.
As an aside, golden eagles of course build their own nests but occasionally, if two eaglets hatch, the first - usually the largest - will either peck its sibling to death or push it out of the nest.
Thirdly, and perhaps the main reason, is that deep down cuckoos somehow remind us of our prehistoric past, witches, ghosts, supernatural powers and rituals of the traditional calendar. When thick snow lay on the low ground last week in Argyll, I was constantly reminded by my farming friends of two old sayings: ‘The cuckoo snow’ and ‘ The lambing snow’; there is another snow which falls in early May but its name escapes me for the moment.
A cuckoo calling from the roof of a house meant the death of one of the occupants within the year – a saying which probably dates from a time when most dwellings were thatched, as I have never seen a cuckoo sitting on galvanised ridging or a slate roof.
In bygone times an older generation, on going to bed for the night, would put a bit of bread, called the ‘cuckoo piece’, under their pillow because of the following omen: ‘I heard the cuckoo without food in my belly, I saw the foal with its back to me, I saw the snail on the bare stone slab and I knew that the year would be bad for me.’
The Irish put it rather more strongly: ‘ You don’t want to be looking at the ground when you hear the first cuckoo, it means that you will be below it before it returns next year’. In Scandinavia, the number of times you hear the first cuckoo indicates the years that you have left in this life.
A cuckoo from a sketch by Mrs Hugh Blackburn (1923-1909), who lived at Roshven.