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04/16/2005 Archived Entry: "Cuckoos"
There was a time, not long ago, when the distinctive sound of the cuckoo's voice was a reliable herald of spring in this country. The male cuckoo's call, a perfect imitation of its own name, was, and still is, unmistakable even if some of us have never caught sight of the bird in question. I think it is fair to say that even though we recognise the call, many of us do not know what the bird looks like.
Perhaps if we did see it, we might have think it was a hawk of some kind, for the cuckoo has many similarities to our sparrowhawk, including its size, grey plumage and barred chest. Even in flight, the shape of the cuckoo's wings is hawk-like, although the rounded end of its long tail is one helpful form of identification.
Today, the cuckoo's voice is by no means common. Indeed, the bird is almost a rarity in this country but its decline has not been sudden. Records suggest that numbers have been gradually dwindling since the mid-1940's and various reasons have been suggested by way of explanation. Those reasons are fairly straight-forward for they include the use of chemical pesticides on the land, these killing much of the food upon which the cuckoo relies, but there is also the destruction of its habitat such as hedge and scrub clearance. Another factor might be climate change although at one point the blame was attributed to our cold and wet springs and summers. I'm not sure how this fits the theory of global warming!
The cuckoo does not live in the UK for the entire year, being one of our best known summer visitors. In some areas, it is known as the herald of spring. It arrives from Africa around April 14 and for that reason, the day is often called Cuckoo Day. It is also the feast day of St Tibertius and in some parts of the north, gardeners always planted their potatoes on Cuckoo Day. One old adage tells us that the cuckoo sings from St Tibertius' Day until St John's Day, St John's Day being June 24, otherwise known as Midsummer Day.
The cuckoo's stay in Britain is fairly short and it does not sing throughout the whole of that period. It appears that the male announces his arrival by shouting "cuckoo, cuckoo" repeatedly from a high vantage point while his mate's call is more of a bubbling note, but those calls become fewer and fewer as the weeks pass. By summer, we might not hear them at all because the cuckoo may leave these shores as early as July. Here in the north, the cuckoos are almost certain to have left by then, although a very small number might linger until September in the south of England.
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of superstition about the arrival of the cuckoo. I've known old folks turn the money in their pockets at the first sound of the cuckoo, this being thought a sign of good fortune. If you turned your money at the cuckoo's shout, then you would acquire wealth during the year; if you made a wish at the same time, it would be granted.
Some thought it lucky if the cuckoo's call was to one's right or to the front, but if it was behind or to one's left, then bad fortune could be expected. In some areas, it was thought that if you were looking at the ground when you first heard the cuckoo, then you would be dead within a year.
The Welsh thought that a child born on the day the cuckoo was first heard would be lucky throughout his or her life, while in Scotland if a person was out walking and heard the cuckoo, the number of its calls was the number of years the listener could expect to live. In Northumberland, it was considered very fortunate to be standing on soft ground or grass when hearing one's first cuckoo, while to be standing on hard or barren ground was a sign of great misfortune.
The bird's call was also important for romantically inclined girls. In many parts of the country, they believed that an unmarried person should turn around three times upon first hearing the cuckoo, and then remove the left stocking. If they found a hair on the sole of their foot, it would be the colour of the hair of their future spouse. If no hair was found, there would be no romance that year.
However, a girl could discover how many years she must wait until marriage by counting the cuckoo's first cries, but it had to be done beneath a cherry tree. She would call "Cuckoo, cuckoo, cherry tree, how many years before I marry?" And when the cuckoo replied, she had to count its cries, one for each year.
If the cuckoo brings good luck to some, it brings bad luck to lots of our smaller birds. The female does not build her own nest but lays eggs in the nests of others. These are usually of small birds like reed warblers, dunnocks and meadow pipits, and she might lay twelve eggs in twelve different nests, removing an existing egg to make room for her own. When the baby cuckoo hatches, it throws out all the other eggs and so the foster parents then have the task of rearing a massive hungry foster chick. For all their supposed romantic charms, cuckoos are not very pleasant birds.