Written by Heather Elvidge
Last week’s sunshine brought out butterflies from hibernation. Peacocks with startling “eyes”, small russet-winged tortoiseshells, and raggedy-edged commas were all heading for the spring flowers.
Cuckoos turn up on farmland, moorland, marshland and in open woodland
The improved weather was good news for those migrating birds held up by northerly winds. Now swallows are streaming in from the south, and on Bempton Cliffs, puffins are returning to their breeding burrows after months spent at sea.
An iconic summer bird is back too – at least some of them are. Have you heard a cuckoo yet? Folklore says you’ll have good luck if the first call you hear is coming from your right. If there’s money in your pocket or purse give it a jingle, and you’ll have plenty for the rest of the year.
Cuckoos turn up on farmland, moorland, marshland and in open woodland, anywhere they can find suitable foster parents for their chick. But hearing that distinctive call is more likely than catching a glimpse of the singer. While his penetrating voice can be heard for some distance the cuckoo – a grey-blue bird the size of a collared dove – remains hidden in a tree.
People used to make quite a fuss about hearing the first cuckoo. In April and May there were many Cuckoo Days when old fairs were held to mark the bird’s arrival, and in the nineteenth century there was a custom among some workers to down tools for the day, so they could drink to the bird that brought summer.
Today we know that the cuckoo is a migrant that comes here to breed, having spent the winter in west Africa. In the past there was no way of knowing that, so people conjured up their own explanations for the cuckoo’s arrival.
There was the Cornish farmer who placed a large, hollow log in the hearth. Out flew a cuckoo, and from that moment winter became spring. At Heathfield Fair in Sussex a mysterious old woman would release cuckoos from her basket, ushering in the warm, sunny days.
At Marsden, near Huddersfield, they built a wall around their cuckoo to prevent it flying away, taking the summer with it. But the cuckoo flew over the wall – “it were nobbut just one course too low.” Marsden still holds its Cuckoo Festival, complete with giant cuckoos; it’s on April 24 and 25.
As numerous songs, stories, old fairs and place names demonstrate, the cuckoo was once a common bird. But in the past 25 years its numbers have halved. This could be due to habitat loss here or in Africa, hazards during the long migration, or fewer dunnocks and reed warblers, which are the cuckoo’s favourite host species.
Since 2011, the British Trust for Ornithology has been fitting cuckoos with solar powered satellite tags to discover more about the birds’ habits. Although they take different routes across the Mediterranean and Sahara, the BTO cuckoos mainly end up in the Congo rainforest. Now they’re on their way back to Britain.
If you’d like to follow their progress, or maybe sponsor a cuckoo, go to www.bto.org . And if you enjoy a flutter, one of the high street bookmakers is giving odds on which cuckoo will be first to arrive back.