picture of a cuckoo

A Cuckoo’s Tale: In June I Change My Tune

Last week I read that the male cuckoos that are part of the cuckoo tracking project were already leaving the UK and returning to Africa to overwinter, their job done in terms of ensuring the next generation. These first ones to fly south had spent the spring in Ireland, fairly close to where we have just spent our spring.

Waking up on one of those morning's we heard a cuckoo really close by and Peter even managed to see one flying over. These days if we hear them at all they are normally a long way off – a whisper across the hills, fading in the wind. The sound of the cuckoo filled my early childhood springs, flowing across the lowland heath of Strensall Common. If ever there is a tale to engage people with birds it is that of the cuckoo. Such an evocative call but with such a callous end. We have all seen the footage of baby cuckoos pushing everything else out of the nest and of a tiny parent feeding the oversized cuckoo fledgling as if it were there own.

Beyond their call, I have my own memories of cuckoos. Firstly a song  "Cuckoo, cuckoo, what do you do" which my grandma played to us frequently. I think the version we listened to was from Benjamin Britten’s Song Cycles “Friday Afternoons” sung by John Hahessy and recorded in 1961.  The words are attributed to Jane Taylor (1783 - 1824).  I still refer to it in my head when I am listening for the call and I am sad when I get to June without hearing it, because I know I won’t hear one for another summer.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo, what do you do?

"In April I open my bill;

In May I sing night and day;

In June I change my tune

In July Far far I fly;

In August away I must."

Cuckoo, Cuckoo!

Photographing Cuckoos

The other is one of those family stories, an event that probably happened before I was born and that was used to tease my grandpa – one of those “do you remember when” tales that every family has.   My grandparents’ house, The Croft, was surrounded by a number of trees,  sycamores that  housed the rookery,  a lovely old oak, a high beech hedge, a stunning flowering cherry, an old willow , a laburnum and lilacs. It was on a branch of one of these trees that my Grandpa spotted a cuckoo chick being attended to by its songbird foster parents. He wanted to take a photo and rushed in for his box brownie. If you have ever tried to take a bird photo with anything less than a very large lens, you can imagine the outcome -  a little brown blob on the end of the branch which could have been anything!

Shared Knowledge

For all that cuckoos are declining across most of the UK and many younger people have never heard them call, they are still part of our shared knowledge of spring. Cuckoo flower (cardamine pratensis) and Cuckoo Pint (arum maculatum) are among the common names for two spring flowers; the froth that encases the froghopper and appears on plants in May and June is known as cuckoo spit. We also have cuckoo bumblebees, which lay their eggs in the nests of other bumble bees.

In our culture we use the cuckoo as a symbol of adultery - to cuckold or a "cuckoo in the nest." We have "cloud cuckoo-land" as a utopian fantasy land and numerous books with cuckoo in the title: "One Flew Over the Cuckoos nest" and "Midwich Cuckoos" to name just two.

Cuckoos are part of our shared knowledge as harbingers of spring, adultery and misfits. Lets hope that the research project allows us to help the bird survive in reality and not just in tales and folklore.

You can read more about the Cuckoo Tracking Project here

Cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower
Cuckoo spit on marjoram
Cuckoo spit on marjoram