Wel­come the cuckoo’s re­turn

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

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.

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