They may be parasitic creatures with murderous and greedy offspring, but the prospect of no annual competition to hear the cuckoo’s first call is grim, Claire Jackson believes.
The sketched landscape receives its first color wash. As the brimstones awaken and the buds bloom, a large gray bird appears, seemingly from nowhere. He perches on a fence post in the field, surveying his new quarters. From a distance, it could be a kestrel or a sparrowhawk, but the cry betrays it: the open beak emits a ‘cuckold‘-there is a fleeting pause-then the beak closes for the next one’oh‘.
The onomatopoeically named bird has been a harbinger of spring in Britain for centuries. Its call (produced only by males) is reflected in our own music. It’s an iconic part of the woods soundscape, long-awaited as an indicator that we’ve survived another winter.
But it’s not just the cuckoo’s song that fascinates. Though the bird’s thoughts herald brighter, brighter days for many – “Summer is coming, sing hello loudly!” – this is a warning for meadow pipits, accents and other birds whose nests the cuckoo will parasitize. As the UK’s only regular intruder, the cuckoo’s behavior is endlessly intriguing and has long been immortalized in art, literature and language.
The cuckoo’s whereabouts were a source of mystery to our ancestors, who developed various theories to explain the birds’ brief appearance. “It took us thousands of years to work out where these birds were going and in some ways the truth is more fantastic than fiction,” says Guy Anderson, one of the RSPB’s experts on migratory species. .
“For a long time, people thought they were hibernating or changing their appearance. If you compare this with the reality – that birds fly around the world – then their theories don’t seem unreasonable. Eurasian cuckoos are one of our long-distance migrants; they spend part of the year with us and the rest of their lives in tropical Africa, in places like the Congo Basin. We know them as country birds, but for much of the year they live in rainforests with elephants and chimpanzees.
Their short stay prompted Jane Taylor (1783-1824), author of Twinkle, twinkle, little starto speak in the name of the cuckoo:
In April, I open my bill.
In May, I sing night and day.
In June, I change your tone.
In July, far, far I fly…
In August, far!
The lyrics were set to music by Benjamin Britten, who, like composers before him, couldn’t help but reproduce the cry of the bird in his piece for children’s choirs. The clarinet has often been used to imitate the distinctive timbre of the cuckoo, notably in Saint-Saëns The Cuckoo in the Woods from Carnival of the Animalswhere the clarinetist is kicked offstage to add authenticity (you’ll probably hear a cuckoo before you see one).
Other works, such as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, take a similar observational approach, as does Delius’ Dew Hear the first cuckoo in spring. Other composers have used the rhythmic motif and planted it around the orchestra: in the first movement of Mahler’s first symphony, the cuckoo’s call is taken up by brass, strings and percussion.
The departure of the cuckoo is due to its notorious breeding behavior: the eggs are laid in a host nest and, while the adoptive parent takes care of feeding the chick, the adult cuckoo is free to return to warmer climates. The sound of the last cuckoo cry is as remarkable as the first. Surrey’s Dockenfield newsletter (www.dockenfieldpc.org.uk/newsletter), edited by Michael Foster, runs a ‘cuckoo clock’ which tracks calls throughout the village. Last year’s spring edition noted a ‘cuckoo‘ as early as February 26, with a flurry of reports for April and a final documented call on June 6.
However, tracking the cuckoo is not always straightforward. In 1913, a Mr. Lydekker informed The temperaturewho published the correspondence of the “first cuckoo” until 1940, that he had heard the call on February 4 – only to have to write again, eight days later, to inform readers that the note had in fact been pronounced by a neighboring crook.
A more reliable way to enjoy the cuckoo’s soft tones is via a cuckoo clock, where the hour is marked by the call of a model bird. These clocks were first developed in the German Black Forest and were traditionally made of wood with a mechanical (one day/eight day) clock movement – but contemporary designs come in all colours, shapes and sizes.
Once the cuckoo has spotted a suitable nest—usually those of dumb accents, reed warblers, and meadow pipits—it waits until the host has laid the first egg. Then she lays a single egg, which she lays extremely quickly, usually later in the day. In Cuckoo: cheating by natureNick Davies refers to a letter submitted to Country Life in 1922, which described how a cuckoo flew into a nursery one sunny afternoon, was brought outside, flew onto the shoulder of the writer’s daughter and laid an egg which fell, unbroken, to the ground.
It appears that the bird intended to lay eggs in a wagtail nest near the nursery window, but, deterred by a game of tennis, it missed its target. A few days later the wagtail nest was checked and it contained a cuckoo egg – it was presumed to be from the same bird (cuckoos lay up to 25 eggs).
This charming anecdote reveals just how resilient cuckoo clocks (and their eggs) can be. Besides having thick shells, cuckoo eggs mimic the color of those of their hosts. The cuckoo chick needs a shorter gestation period, so it hatches before its nestmates and then expels the remaining host eggs (“The Feathered Wrecker,” April 1, 2020). For added evolutionary zeal, the cuckoo has developed a huge orange opening, ensuring that the host parents are working around the clock to nurture it.
This does not mean that the foster parents happily accept their fate. Species such as the spotted flycatcher will reject eggs that don’t look like their own, but this means the cuckoos have assembled more complex egg mimicry. ‘An arms race has developed between cuckoos and hosts, so cuckoos are more sophisticated in the way they parasitize a nest and hosts have developed better ways of locating it,’ says Dr Anderson. This is called the “Red Queen” hypothesis, after that of Lewis Carroll. on the other side of the mirrorwhere Alice and the Queen run together, but never travel (“Here it takes all the running you can do to stay in one place”).
Yet host defenses are no longer the cuckoos’ only concern. ‘Once they arrive in Britain, cuckoos rely on large, slow-moving invertebrates as their primary food source, particularly hairy caterpillars,’ advises Dr Anderson. “This group of moths and butterflies has seen steep population declines in recent decades, so the cuckoo is restricted to a narrower range of habitats.” Preserving brush, meadows, wetlands and dirty areas at the edge of estates remains essential. The prospect of not hearing the annual cuckoo call is too grim to bear.
The cuckoo in the nest
- It is estimated that 15,000 pairs of Eurasian Cuckoos breed across Britain each year. The greater spotted cuckoo is a rare and coveted sighting and the yellow-billed cuckoo is an even rarer vagrant
- Cuckoo behavior is often moralized in literature. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear that ‘The hedgerow sparrow [dunnock] fed the cuckoo so long, it bit off its young head” and Ted Hughes warns that the first call of spring “shakes the newspaper”
- The more sinister aspects of brood parasitization are explored in John Wyndham’s 1957 novel Midwich Cuckoo Clocks, in which all the women in a village become pregnant by extraterrestrial forces. A new adaptation starring Keeley Hawes and Max Beesley will air on Sky Max later this year
- The English language is full of avian references, including “up with the lark”, “bald as a coot” and, of course, “hello in the nest”.
- The cuckoo is not the only bird named after its call: other examples include the chough and warbler