Cuckoo heralds the spring, but for how long?


I was recently leafing through a book of mine with poems about nature, when I found a little ditty about the cuckoo in spring, it read:

The Cuckoo is a merry bird, He sings as he flies, He brings us glad tidings, And tells us no lies.

Having recently completed the RSPB Birdwatch in my garden, I was wondering how our native species were faring in general in our gardens. I think it is quite evident that some are not doing so well, only recently I heard on the radio about the decline of our native mistle thrush and not long before that the demise of the cuckoo. I have a love hate relationships with the cuckoo! I love the fact it heralds the spring returning, with warmer days and lighter evenings, and of course the growing of plants. Yet, I despise the means by which this bird has evolved to rear it’s young, but upending it’s hosts eggs to dominate the nest, and forcing the host to feed it as it grows far beyond it’s proportions. Despite this, I wouldn’t like to lose the traditional British sound of the cuckoo from our countryside.

Where I grew up near Heathfield, they celebrate the coming of spring with a Heffle Fair which gave the town it’s name. The main attraction of the fair in times gone by, was an old lady who would symbolically release a cuckoo from a basket, then much celebrations would begin! You can read more about it’s history here.

So why is the cuckoo struggling to survive? There are a few opinions on this, many based upon climate change and alterations in habitat. Climate change is also blamed for making it’s migration from Africa more dangerous, due to shifts in timing that may set the bird off course or into bad weather. It is also suggested that the cuckoo’s decline is a direct response to the decline of it’s host’s nests, these being┬áDunnock, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Reed Warbler. The cuckoo also has seen a decline in it’s food sources such as large caterpillars.

There are some habits of the cuckoo that I didn’t know before, such as the male returns to British shores before the female in spring, so it’s his mating call we hear to attract a female. His call also changes in pitch throughout the months leading up to summer, starting with a major second in April, then widening into a minor third before changing to a major third, then slowly into a fourth and so on until ending with an augmented fourth in late June! I would like to test out this theory but I fear that in Eastbourne the chances of me hearing a cuckoo every week from April until June is probably pretty slim. Once the male has mated with the female bird, she will find a suitable host’s nest to lay her egg, before returning to Africa. When the chick has successfully hatched and grown to a considerable size, thanks to the lack of competition from siblings, it will itself fly to Africa alone.

So next time I’m out in the woods I will be listening with a keen ear to hear if this familiar bird has returned this year.