Image by Nick Ford, Flickr Creative Commons
Of all the birds to signify summer, the Cuckoo is the most readily recognised, if only by its call: in looks it resembles a sparrowhawk. Many people know the Middle English song, thought to have been composed around the middle of the 13th century.
|Svmer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccuAwe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
murie sing cuccu
Sing cuccu nu • Sing cuccu.
|Summer has arrived,
Sing loudly, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting,
Sing merrily, cuckoo!
Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo;
We’re only just beginning to understand the life-cycle of the cuckoo. For a bird that seems so quintessentially ‘ours’, it actually spends only about 15% of its time in Britain. Half its life is spent in central Africa, and around a third is spent on the move. Not only that, its migration route is one of the most hazardous of all: straight over the Sahara desert without a break.
There’s more to being a cuckoo than an audacious lifestyle. In order to breed successfully each cuckoo must time its arrival to coincide with the breeding cycle of the species that will play host to its young. Cuckoos are remarkably species specific. Each female cuckoo will lay her own distinctively patterned egg that mimics that of just one other species. A reed warbler’s cuckoo is not able to breed in the company of pied wagtails. If they get their timing wrong, a season is wasted.
Come June or maybe early July, the adults are off: their work is done. Not till the following Spring will the pages of The Times print letters from readers wishing to note this most heraldic of events, even more significant than the arrival of that other great African migrant, the Swallow.
How the young birds get down to Africa is almost anyone’s guess. They have no older more experienced birds to guide them, and must rely on some kind of instinctive sense to guide them. We know that they use narrow corridors and stop off at certain stations along the way, most importantly north of the river Po in Italy. Just as important is an area above Madrid in Spain. Either way they must prepare for a long dash across the empty lands of North Africa where, presumably, they will not feed until they reach the lusher parts of central Africa. Outside of the leg across the Sahara, their trip down south is relatively leisurely, and can take up to four months to get home. Heading north is more of a dash as they try to catch the best breeding conditions.
Cuckoo numbers are declining, and we’re not sure why. It might be that the breeding patterns of host species are changing. A shift of just a few days can mean the difference between success and failure in cuckoo terms. All species are subject to the availability of food, and its not unreasonable to suspect that agribusiness, with its reliance on heavily controlled sanitised environments, might also be a factor.
John Clare, as ever, combined acute observation with poetic insight:
The cuckoo, like a hawk in flight,
With narrow pointed wings
Whews o’er our heads – soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings:
And darting down the hedgerow side
She scares the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard.
I’ve watched it on an old oak tree
Sing half an hour away
Until its quick eye noticed me
And then it whewed away.
Its mouth when open shone as red
As hips upon the brier,
Like stock doves seemed its winged head
But striving to get higher
It heard me rustle and above leaves
Soon did its flight pursue,
Still waking summer’s melodies
And singing as it flew.
So quick it flies from wood to wood
‘Tis miles off ‘ere you think it gone;
I’ve thought when I have listening stood
Full twenty sang – when only one.
When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more.