The First Cuckoo?

Another harbinger of spring

Cowslips, another harbinger of spring

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.

Outlandish behaviour

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?

You might also like:

French and Corsican Easter Traditions
Cuckoos, birdsong and SW France weather March 2015
Nightingales in Southwest France

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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14 Responses to The First Cuckoo?

  1. Way later tha the SF stats but this morning eating my ( late ) breakfast outside i heard my first cuckoo! 19th april!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Osyth says:

    I can report that there are no cuckoos yet in Cantal but I can also report that Spring is further advanced here by a smidge than it is in the bit of Massachusetts that is putting up with me at the moment. Having had the clocks go forwards two weeks ago we then flew here on Friday to have them go forwards the following night. I’m a mess but The Bean seems oblivious – just snoring, walking and troughing as though nothing has happened at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Two time changes plus jet lag in the space of two weeks sounds pretty rough to me. After an early showing, the cuckoo has been determinedly silent but that seems to be par for the course. They don’t start up in earnest until April.

      How does The Bean travel? Does she have to go in the hold? Glad air travel doesn’t seem to have a traumatic effect on her.

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  3. No cuckoo yet but i thought i heard a nightingale yesterday evening, that unmistakeable piping song. But it stopped almost as soon as it started. Wishful thinking on my part? But loads of ‘cuckoo’ (cowslip) flowering up on the causse. Just need lots of warm sun now! A bientot…

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      A friend who lives 15 km further south from us emailed today to say that he had heard a nightingale. That’s really very early. According to my husband’s stats, the earliest we have recorded hearing one is the 6th April. Lots of cowslips here, too. The sun has brought them out. Better weather forecast for later in the week, so I believe.

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  4. What a lovely post about cuckoos. I have heard them in Scotland but never seen one. Great anecdote about the estate agent and the key! Glad spring is on the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      They are not easy to spot and tend to be quite secretive and solitary birds, hiding away in the trees while calling. But I have been practising my cuckoo song, so I hope to entice one or two out of cover this year!

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  5. ROBBOC says:

    No cuckoos here yet, but the local woodpeckers are very busy! When I see one, swooping low through the trees, I am always struck by its colour. The variety dubbed Common European is an astonishingly bright mix of yellow and green underneath, which can be described neither as one nor the other of those colours. For an instant it’s as if I’ve come upon an escaped parrot! Sorry, they’re not migratory, I realise, but having broken the thread it gives me the opportunity to mention also the ravens which live on a cliff face at an isolated spot to one side of our valley. They never stop chattering in their deep, throaty chortle as they waddle about scouring the ground for food. Love the Spring! xC

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s a lovely time of year, isn’t it? Terry C says he has heard a cuckoo chez eux. Yes, the green woodpeckers this year are very active! It must be a good year for them. I have been hearing that hysterical laughing call a lot recently. I didn’t know you had ravens up there.

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      • ROBBOC says:

        The cliff face – well, just a vertical rocky bit, really – is at the top of our side valley, which we rarely climb. We had them in north Wales, too. On that occasion living in the tree tops a few hundred yards from the house. With their constant, deep-throated banter I took them for rooks for ages, but a visiting friend said no, they’re too big, their voices are bass not tenor, and they have black plumage all over, no bald patch! Oh, and unlike rooks, they feed in relays. You never see more than one or two at a time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        If I understand it correctly, ravens are the biggest of the crow family. We have plenty of crows around here and, for a couple of years running had an invasion of what must have been rooks at the end of the summer. Around 40-50 of them would descend in the neighbouring fields and were clearly attracted by some foodstuff. But this occurred only a couple of years running and not since. I’ve never seen jackdaws, their smaller cousins, around here.

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  6. Alastair says:

    Like you, I heard a cuckoo faintly in the distance on 24th March here in Catalonia. Probably the earliest I have ever heard it (and very seldom in England nowadays)..I think it was in the south east from where I stood but that could have best west for someone else!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      There are reports of cuckoos coming in from all over now. They are obviously early this year – and even nightingales, which don’t normally arrive until at least the end of the first week of April.

      Like

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