Cuckoo!...Cuckoo!...Where are Yoo? Where are Yoo?
One of the world's best known birds, the Cuckoo
Oh, you're nasty, but we miss you!
People in Britain have always associated the cuckoo with the coming of spring. It’s hypnotic mating call was heard anywhere there was woodland. The bird seemed able to use the talents of a ventriloquist as well, it was so hard to pin down the direction of the unique sound, and the bird itself was much more rarely seen. It was always there, however, and we were all charmed by its chorus, as well as horrified by the habits of the young cuckoos. It must be universally known that the cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds and when the baby cuckoo hatches it soon throws the other eggs, or the legitimate youngsters, out to die while it gets all the attention of the parents.
For some 10 years, though, the cuckoo seems to have deserted Britain, so rare have their evocative cries become; in fact, they are down by at least 60% over pre-1970 figures, and this figure has steepened recently.
It is not just the cuckoo, of course, most of the visitors who brought the joys of spring to the countryside are also down, some in greater numbers that the cuckoo: the Spotted Flycatcher, for example, is down by a numbing 85%.
The species are just vanishing from the surface of the Earth!
The birds winter in Kenya and Ethiopia. The male is responsible for the bell-like tones, which we like, because it is so easy to imitate; indeed, it sounds like the human voice.
It is so entrenched in British folk lore, that it’s arrival inspired the oldest song in in English, author anonymous, “Sumer is icumen in” (“And loudly sings cuckoo). Aristotle mused over it, and Shakespeare used the bird in King Lear.
The cuckoo is hardly the most beautiful bird to grace our skies and woodlands. It is blue and grey in color, of medium size - somewhat larger that a thrush or blackbird, with a large, 22 inch wingspan. It’s rapid flight is rather hawk-like and the bird is often confused with a bird-of-prey, probably a trait developed by the cuckoo to help it invade other bird‘s nests.
I mentioned its predatory and rather awful parasitic habits - it is know as a “brood parasite” amongst ornithologists.
It is hard to find another creature on the planet which both charms us and abhors us in equal measure and may point to the hypocrisy of man.
Perhaps the Koala is another, the Aussie marsupial we coo over. Actually, they are stupid and can vicious by nature. And the bear, of course…you might love the toy. But few would consider squeezing “Bruin” in the wild.
There are actually two cuckoos making their presence felt in Europe: ours and the Great Spotted Cuckoo, found in the Mediterranean areas, which is parasitic on the Magpies (and detested by them, they mob it on sight!).
Unfortunately, the cuckoos pick on some of our most beloved birds; in Britain, most cuckoo “parasites” are laid in the nests of Robins (yes, our lovely redbreast), Pied Wagtails, the common birds we see picking up tidbits all over the place in spring, and up to 100 more species.
Cuckoos would seem to specialize on the birds they use, as their eggs in many cases are similar to the eggs of the host. We now know this to be true after much doubt, and the cuckoo is known linked to the host, “Cuckoo-Robins, etc. Amazing how the species is able to mimic the variety of patterns and coloration of the eggs of so many species.
This may, although this is purely speculation on my part, be why there are so many fewer immigrants, because their specialized hosts have been sorely depleted over the last 20 years: this, along with severe insect decline, may have spelled the absence, hopefully on a temporary basis, of our cuckoo.
Bats, who specialize on moths, and the Cuckoo, who do the same with their big hairy and poisonous caterpillars during the day, have been doubly hit.
Moths, indeed, may be some of the creatures most denuded on the planet, hundreds of species have disappeared or been decimated, as have all those creatures who depend on them one way or another.
Do you get Cuckoos in the USA? Probably not, but you do have one famous member of the same family, the Roadrunner.
They are famously said to emit a “Beep-Beep!” Or was that just in the famous cartoon?