Happy Easter, Joyeuses Pâques à tout le monde. Easter this year has coincided with the clocks going forward for summertime and, I think, the first cuckoo. When I hung out of the window this morning listening to the birdsong, I thought I heard the piping sounds of the cuckoo’s call far in the distance. I can’t be completely sure, but let’s assume it was this summer visitor.
Pinned down by statistics
As you can probably imagine, the cuckoo’s annual arrival is noted with meticulous precision by my husband, the Statistics Freak. So here are the arrival dates for the past five years:
2011 – 26th March
2012 – 25th March
2013 – 11th April
2014 – 4th April
2015 – 12th April
According to his stats, the range over 17 years is between 25th March and 12th April, i.e. nearly three weeks. This year, it’s early. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t been equally early in previous years; just that we haven’t necessarily heard it then.
These mysterious migratory birds capture the imagination more than many others. First, they are harbingers of summer, so their song is eagerly awaited. Second, the song itself is like no other. Finally, their outlandish behaviour is so fascinating.
From their winter quarters in Africa, they navigate their way to their nesting grounds – or more accurately, to other birds’ nesting grounds – throughout Europe. Cuckoos are known as ‘brood parasites’, since they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, often mimicking the colour of the host bird’s eggs. Their larger chicks monopolise their surrogate parents and manoeuvre the other nestlings out of the nest.
They are not the only birds to do this, but I think I’m correct in saying that they are unique in France in that regard. However, there’s a kind of avian arms race going on: some species are getting wise to the cuckoo’s strategy, so the cuckoo has to get cleverer at camouflage.
Although you hear the cuckoo’s distinctive call, you don’t often see one. And its flight is often confused with that of a sparrowhawk. However, it has a heavier appearance and its barred underside gives it away. I have managed to lure one to fly overhead by making a cuckoo sound, but they are not easily duped and soon realise when someone is having them on.
Entwined with memories
The sound of cuckoos is one of my abiding memories of house hunting in France in late April 19 years ago. When we drove up to our present house, a cuckoo was singing to the west. The Swedes have an expression, “West cuckoo is best cuckoo,” so we like to think this was a good omen.
Another memory is of being left outside a house in the middle of nowhere by an estate agent while he went on a fruitless search to get the key. We waited for half an hour to the sound of cuckoos, while becoming increasingly concerned, since we had no idea where we were. Eventually, he reappeared with a tale about the key having been consumed in a bonfire by mistake, so we never saw the house. Never mind, we got the right one in the end.
After about mid-July, the cuckoo’s song abates as it flies south to Africa. What a complex evolutionary twist it is that has made this bird travel thousands of miles and develop such an eccentric breeding system.
Have you heard a cuckoo yet?
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