Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cuckoo

I've never knowingly seen a cuckoo, have you? I've heard them... mostly in the long hot summers of my childhood... but not recently. It's easy to mistake the repetitive call of a distant collared dove for a cuckoo if you only catch the last two notes - in fact I heard one today - but, whilst our collared doves are happy to stay here however chilly our European winters might be, and coo-coooooo-coo their way through Christmas and New Year, our cuckoos will now be in warmer climes – Africa, usually, perhaps in Angola, or the Congo.

I suppose a more apt-sounding destination would be Cloud Cuckoo Land, which in my head is somewhere between Timbuktu and Shangri La... but which in fact (well, fiction) was a perfect city in the clouds erected in an incredibly short time, the imaginative creation of an ancient Greek playwright called Aristophanes. The name was first used in 414BC in his comedy 'The Birds', which I understand had nothing to do with Alfred Hitchcock...

Cuckooland also sounds like a suitable place for the birds' winter holiday but it turns out it's a cuckoo clock museum in Cheshire. Yes, you did read that right: a cuckoo clock museum.


According to the lyrics of the traditional English folk song The Cuckoo (or Coo Coo), it's a “pretty bird” who “warbles when s/he flies”. Bob Dylan covered the song, as did numerous other artists including Richard Thompson, Donovan and the Everly Brothers. The version I know best is by the Be Good Tanyas.


It's best not to anthropomorphise these birds though because, in human terms, they would seem dysfunctional at best and murderous at worst. The mothers had dumped their eggs in the nests of other smaller species and abdicated from parental duties completely.  The fathers had left the scene long beforehand, and their unknown young, once hatched, had been responsible for the deaths of all the biological offspring of their unwitting new foster parents. But if I can just compare one positive thing to human ability (or lack of), it's their incredible migration. The thought of it boggles my mind, as it does when I consider all creatures who travel vast distances under their own power. I don't know if they warbled, or perhaps even wobbled, when they flew, but once the breeding season was over our cuckoos left their roots for a nine month stay thousands of miles away.  The cuckoo weighs about the same as an i-phone, and its wingspan is similar length to a human adult's arm from shoulder to wrist. It can cover hundreds of miles a day at a speed of 50mph and a cruising height of over a mile, across continents and seas. (Don't even get me started on butterfly migration...)


The cuckoos will hopefully be back here in the Spring and we must all listen out for the first one so that we can immediately write a letter to The Times. The newspaper has been publishing 'first cuckoo of Spring' letters for about a hundred years now, so it's a tradition which really should be maintained. The only thing is to make sure you don't first hear a cuckoo whilst cleaning the loo or having your teeth drilled by a sadistic dentist. If possible, make sure you're somewhere really nice, somewhere you'd like to spend more time, and doing something that makes you happy, because superstition has it that wherever you are and whatever condition you're in when you hear the first cuckoo of Spring is how you'll remain for the next twelve months.

Maybe you'd like to be listening to the Cramps?




21 comments:

  1. Dear C, what a beautiful post. I'm pretty certain I've never seen a real live cuckoo, though I may have heard one - the memory dims. I'm sure we don't get them in these or any other parts anywhere near as much as we used to. Their antics are quite ghastly if looked at in a certain way but nature is bizarre isn't it? have you heard Robert Wyatt's song, 'Cuckoo Madam'? When I listen to that I feel more sympathy for them. Their migration is quite incredible, isn't it? I haven't heard the Be Good Tanya's take on the old folk song for years, so much thanks for that.

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    1. Wanted to add - thanks for the 'heads up' on the cuckoo clock museum. Will definitely try to get there one day! A rival for the Pencil Museum at last.

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    2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, thank you! I will have a listen to the RW song too, never heard it so thanks for that too. Nature is very harsh at times but it all works out somehow, doesn't it... And yes a rival for the Pencil Museum (I love pencils so I really do think I should go there!) We can add it to the list along with another I recently read about - the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre in London!

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  2. I don't think I have ever heard a cuckoo! I feel I've missed out... I've heard a nightingale singing in Bloomsbury Square and figured that was close enough to the song to warrant a gold star. Of course I wouldn't know the song of a nightingale from a thrush to be honest so what I actually heard was the uplifting song of a poor bird kept unnaturally awake by neon street lights.

    Woodpeckers, will they do? We have green and red woodpeckers round here, see them every year

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    1. I'm very happy to believe it was a nightingale you heard singing...

      Woodpeckers will definitely do, I love the way they make a sound like manic laughter... at least I think it's a woodpecker I hear round here sometimes and not a neighbour who's been on the magic mushrooms...

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  3. Much as I like the Cramps always good to hear the BGTs

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    1. A bit of a contrast, but both good in their own ways!

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  4. Yes, I'd like to listen to the Cramps.
    Swiss Adam

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  5. In 2014 we spent our third summer here. In the previous two I'd heard cuckoos while out walking several times, but had never seen one, but last year, for some reason I was lucky enough to see (& hear!) a cuckoo, quite regularly for a while, in two separate locations. I don't know if I've become more aware, now know what to look for or simply begun stepping more lightly on my travels, but there they were time and again, always in the same areas. I had a lucky year with deer too, previously rare sightings gave way to a constant run where, for a while, I regularly stumbled upon a herd (or is that a bevy?) in the same area at the same time of day.
    Great post C, with fine tunes attached. I'll keep my eyes and ears peeled for cuckoos come Spring-time and report back if I'm in luck - either to you or The Times!

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    1. Ah, glad you enjoyed too and the tunes, and as for your wildlife encounters I'm envious... close-up cuckoos and a bevy of deer too, so lovely. I hope your cuckoo/s come back this Spring. You might be interested to read about the cuckoos being followed by the BTO using satellite tags, they're from Norfolk and now in Africa...maybe you've seen the same ones! I don't have a link handy but a quick google search for BTO cuckoo tracking should find it.

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  6. I checked out the BTO site during the period that the cuckoos were in our neck of the woods last year, but sadly no tracked birds were in our neighbourhood. In 2013, however, Derek apparently stopped off around here, while on his travels. Last year he took a similar flight path, but further West. I shall be sure to monitor all his movements from now on.
    I tried to get a photo of a cuckoo last year on probably my best sighting evening, but sadly my old camera wasn't up to the job. The new one's another point and press, but a little sharper, so I'll be sure to keep it with me at all times come the Spring, just in case.

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    1. Oh that's brilliant about Derek (I love the names they've been given). I didn't know if you knew about the BTO project - apologies for not realising you were already there. I've been keeping up with 'Chris'!

      Look forward to seeing your cuckoo photos this Spring - fingers crossed (except when you're pointing and pressing...)



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  7. I don't believe I have knowingly heard or seen a cuckoo, but we do love the clocks. I enjoy the information about the birds here. If you have read the Cuckoo's Calling, you might find something interesting in the title and the reality of the bird. Same for the name of the hero, Comoran Strike.

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    1. Thanks Gin G - I don't know anything about American cuckoos - I wonder if they migrate too? - I'll have to read up on them. I haven't read the JK Rowling book, perhaps I should read that too!

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  8. I don't think we have any around here...and I'd happily trade them for the Canadian Geese that are supposed to be migrating through but never seem to leave.

    I know you asked not to be started but, I can't think of migration without thinking of Monarchs.

    Of course, I'd be happy to spend the rest of the year listening to the Cramps.

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    1. Oh, you've got me started! Wow, yes, the Monarch. Staggering. I would love to see one. How do they do it? And it's only in the last few years that I read about the number of small butterflies we get here in the UK migrating from Europe over the channel too. Hummingbird hawkmoths are another... and the closest I'm likely to get to seeing a real live hummingbird (jealous...)

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    2. The quantum mechanics might have an answer but, in order to explain the butterfly migration...everything else becomes a mystery again.

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    3. The mystery is all part of it, isn't it? I don't think we'll ever fully understand. I kind of hope we won't!

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  9. You are right a pretty allusive bird, I have certainly heard them but not over here in Spain. ,I wonder if one stopped of on my roof for a little break on his journey South.

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    1. I'd like to think one did... maybe even one that TS has seen too... we could all be connected by cuckoos!

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