Cuckoo calls herald summer

A meadow pipit brings food for a young cuckoo
A meadow pipit brings food for a young cuckoo

by Heather Elvidge

All of our iconic summer birds are here – sand martins, house martins, swallows and cuckoos and, last week, the first swifts.

When they first arrive, migrant birds concentrate on feeding to build themselves up after their long journey. Swifts won’t think about nesting before the end of this month.

It’s the same for cuckoos, although they don’t have the trouble of nest building. The female finds an unattended nest — usually reed warbler, dunnock, or meadow pipit – then she pops in a single egg and that’s it. She won’t even hang around to watch her youngster grow up.

Not that the cuckoo chick needs her help. On hatching, its instinct is to heave any other eggs from the nest. The foster parents return to a single gaping beak and as the chick grows they face an increasing struggle to fill it.

It’s a tough job for birds that are no bigger than a sparrow, while the cuckoo is the size of a collared dove. Yet it’s not all one sided. The cuckoo’s migrant life, which served it well in the past, is now so hazardous that the bird is on the Red List of species at risk.

The British Trust for Ornithology’s cuckoo-tracking project, now in its third year, has revealed the routes taken by tagged cuckoos flying between Africa and Britain. For more about this, visit www.bto.org/cuckoos <http://www.bto.org/cuckoos>

Faery birds

Some of the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) cuckoos arrived last week. Have you heard one yet? Farmland, wetlands, and open woodland are the places to catch that distinctive call. It’s clear and loud because it needs to carry some distance if the solitary cuckoo is to find a mate.

Folklore promises good luck if the first call you hear is coming from your right. Turn over the coins in your pocket and say, “Lucky coins, now I count thee; cuckoo-spirit bring me bounty”.

The cuckoo’s sudden appearance used to be a mystery. Tales told of the cuckoo that flew out of a log thrown onto a cottager’s fire, or the mysterious old woman who came to the fair every year and released a cuckoo from her apron. Some said cuckoos turned into hawks in winter, or joined the hidden people in the faery hills.

But wherever they came from, cuckoos were heralds of summer. Their arrival used to be marked by Cuckoo Fairs and special cuckoo ale.

On hearing the first cuckoo, Shropshire miners downed tools for an instant holiday called Gaudy Day. Until the 1930s there was a similar custom at Hoffleet Stow in Lincolnshire, where workers equipped with a barrel of beer toasted the cuckoo’s health in the wood where it was heard calling.

Several places have a story of villagers building a pen to stop the cuckoo from leaving, because it would take summer with it. At Borrowdale, in Cumbria, the men built a high wall: the cuckoo skimmed the top and flew off. “By gow,” said one, “If we’d nobbut laid another line o’ stanes atop, we’d a copped ‘im.”

Adult cuckoos begin to leave in July, their work done, but the youngsters often stay until September. Tradition says that the cuckoo sings while the Pleiades can be seen in the night sky — that is, until Midsummer’s Day.