Posted on 17/06/2018 By


The Cuckoo.

A fine example.

Cuckoo, cuck-ooh, cuck-oooh…” Was Bobby half asleep? Maybe he was a little “cuckoo” himself! The days of waiting for the first “cuc … koo”, to confirm that summer really was here, seemed a distant memory. Hearing that evocative, unmistakable call again would be wonderful. Especially from his cosy bed at Laurel Cottage. The village is close to farmland and the Surrey Hills and we heard them every year until recently. For these birds have suffered a catastrophic decline, as detailed later.

At times, Collared Doves and Pigeons cooing can be mistaken (for a second or two) for the Cuckoo, but the deception is soon realised. But there it was again. The dawn chorus was starting at first light. Bobby rushed to the window. Flung it open. An early morning. Mike next door would have got a right eyeful! And yes it was one of these delightful birds that cuckooed for the next half an hour. Moving around the lower reaches of Redlands. We hope he found Mrs Cuckoo. If he did, it would be a romance of very poor morals.

Meet the girl of your dreams for a passionate affair. Just a one night, or even a one minute affair and off to find another. Cuckoo cuckoo. And then the “Mrs” dumps her offspring on some other unsuspecting parents and clears off too.

The genetic antics of a newly hatched Cuckoo in a host nest can be likened to a small child. Move into a family you have never met and chuck their children out of the window. Then expect your new mum and dad to feed and nurture you even if you land up miles bigger than your parents.. The following film seems awful but equally incredible…

Baby Cuckoo already bigger than its unsuspecting parent Reed Warbler.

Baby Cuckoo already bigger than its unsuspecting parent Reed Warbler.

And then you fly to Africa without saying goodbye and never knowing your parents. All on your own. And yet that young bird will hopefully return one day. In its genetic make-up it seems that the species its mother chose for her deception will follow for her offspring.

There are other Cuckoos in a worldwide family. Ours is the common Cuckoo. Few birds call their own name.

Not surprisingly, the sound and the knowledge of its unusual lifestyle have got the romantic poets at it. Here’s one from William Wordsworth:

O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! Shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
The twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.

Though babbling only to the Vale,
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisibly thing,
A voice, a mystery.

The name has also led to other derivations. The urban dictionary describes its human counterparts as one who enters a friend’s house, eats all their food and sleeps in their bed. Note the word “friend”. Otherwise it could be a burglar or psychopath. A friend may be called a bit of a cuckoo.

Alternatively, you could have:

“Did you hear about that girl the other day”
“You mean the one who acted like a child and was bouncing off the walls?”
“Ya. She must’ve had a lot of sweets that day and gone totally cuckoo!”

Or even a person who steals a best friend’s girlfriend. What sort of bird is that?
(Take care with the Urban Dictionary if you are averse to foul language).

And, we mustn’t forget the term cuckold. (Do NOT google it!). Much favoured in William Shakespeare’s time in reference to the bird laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. Or, in human terms, somewhat derisory as the man whose wife has been unfaithful to him.

“The cuckoo then on every tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, “Cuckoo”
“Cuckoo” “Cuckoo” – O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.

{Loves Labour’s Lost)

But, back to the bird and its decline in Britain. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) estimates our Cuckoo population is 50% down on twenty years ago. Not evenly spread, so that the decline is more marked in the south of England. Since it is a migratory species, there are many factors away from our shores that could come into the equation. In these days of modern technology, smaller and smaller devices are being invented to attach to birds for information gathering. Starting at first with very large birds, like migratory swans. Moving onto seabirds, who always return to the same burrow, enabling recording devices to be recovered. (As in the Shearwaters on Skomer Island). And then, most impressively, attached to a group of Cuckoos. Individual birds could be tracked in real time. The observers even followed them to their native wintering quarters in Africa. Named after pop stars, they included Kate Bush, Mark Almond and David Bowie. More recently they have included more. The following website will give you fascinating knowledge about the work of the BTO and how it is getting on with tracking individual Cuckoos.

The Cuckoo - Mick Jagger, perhaps?

Mick Jagger, perhaps?

And finally, far more people hear a cuckoo than actually see it. You may follow its call and find it calling from behind you. So here is the RSPB’s “how to identify a Cuckoo”.

“The Cuckoo is a dove-sized bird with blue grey upper parts, head and chest with dark barred white under parts. With their sleek body, long tail and pointed wings, they are not unlike Kestrels or Sparrowhawks. Sexes are similar and the young are brown. They are summer visitors and well-known brood parasites, the females laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, especially Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks and Reed Warblers. Their recent population decline makes this a Red List species.”

The Cuckoo - A spectacular sight in full flight.

A spectacular sight in full flight.


If you saw the last of this year’s BBC Springwatch on 14 June, you will have heard Chris Packham mention the BTO’s Cuckoo survey.

They now have some more Cuckoos electronically connected to the survey with tiny devices. One of the earlier ones, “David Bowie”, is still being tracked and has already left England and currently being followed through France. This is when modern technology takes your breath away.

My guess is that David Bowie flies to England to attract as many females as possible. Does the job and heads off for sunnier climes.”

Lighting a Candle for Diddley

We went to Paris in May and some stories will follow in the weeks ahead. The Basilica of St Denis is very important in French history and we lit our candle there.

The Cuckoo: Lighting a Candle for Diddley - The Basilica of St Denis

The Basilica of St Denis

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  1. Avatar kath says:

    cuckoo….cuckoo…. cuckoo


  2. Avatar Bernard says:

    This could have worked well on Springwatch itself with you at the helm !..good article.

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