Serendipity II – The charismatic cuckoo

I don’t recall having seen a cuckoo before, even though I’ve heard their unique call many times. But on my sojourn over to Wicken Fen a couple of weeks ago there were lots of them. ‘Lots‘ is a relative term because cuckoos are becoming increasingly scarce, their conservation status is red due to recent declines in the breeding population and in 2000 there were 9.6-19000 breeding pairs in the UK. But on this trip we heard and saw at least 5 and possibly several  more.

Just before I spotted the first cuckoo I glanced across the lake and this was the view:

A pair of shoveler in the foreground, a little egret behind and a roe deer just beyond the reeds

I really like this picture because of the colours of the reeds and the water in the evening sunshine, but also because it contains three interesting species. Apart from rabbits, any wild mammal is exciting to see in this country, so the roe deer was a pleasing encounter. The little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) is a member of the heron family which is now resident in the UK, presumably as a result of climate change. I associate them with warmer places because that’s where I saw them before 2000, but nowadays they’re not particularly uncommon here. And in the forefround are two shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand) which are migrant visitors to the UK, but this pair obviously liked it enough to linger and are still here in the middle of May, long after they would normally have left.

And then there were the cuckoos:

A pair of cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Dansk: gøg

The cuckoo is an incredible bird and until very recently it was poorly understood. Last year the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) managed to tag five male cuckoos with tiny satellite tracking devices and found out that they headed to the tropical sub-Saharan rainforests of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cuckoo arrives back in England from Africa in late March or April and departs in July or August. It leaves earlier than other species because its parasitic breeding strategy removes the need for chick rearing. That means the cuckoo spends a minimum of 8 months a year in Africa so to call it a British bird is, I suppose, less than accurate, even though it breeds here.

The classic hanging wings pose which I always associate with the cuckoo

The tagged birds were all fitted with solar powered devices which transmit location data once every 48hr. The tracking data revealed that all five birds headed south over France and across the Mediterranean before heading down across Africa to Cameroon and DRC. All five made it. One of the birds died in Cameroon and two more died on the way back, but two of the five made it back to East Anglia this year. I believe the BTO plan to tag more birds including females and I’m very keen to see the results of that experiment.

The cuckoo is an iconic bird in the UK and it’s call is very distinctive. The call is generally recognised as a signal that Spring has arrived and there are local traditions around the UK based on the cuckoo. It is said in Worcestershire that the cuckoo is never heard before Tenbury Fair on April 21st or after Pershore Fair on June 26th. The song actually changes in June from the characteristic ‘cuck-coo‘ song to a shortened ‘cuck‘, and there is a rhyme about this:

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

My Dad remembers a similar rhyme he used to sing when he was a kid in the 1940’s which was essentially the same but with some local Northamptonshire words substituted in.

I’m not quite sure what these two were doing but they were acting as a pair, and every minute or two one of them would dive off into the adjacent reedbeds to return a minute or so later. As I mentioned above, cuckoos are parasites and they could have been looking for nests to parasitise. There breeding strategy is unique, at least as far as I know. They lay their eggs in the nests of one of three other small songbird species: the reed warbler, the meadow pippit and the dunnock. All of these are the size of a sparrow (ish) so are much smaller than the cuckoo which is dove-sized, which I guess guarantees that the cuckoo chick will be much bigger than its ‘siblings’ and it won’t be threatened. The cuckoo chick then ejects the other chicks from the nest to die and the parents assume it is one of their own and feed it until it fledges. I’ve seen film of a cuckoo chick turfing out the other chicks and it’s a remarkable process, and not particularly pleasant to watch!

Despite their unsavoury procreation habits they are spectacular and charismatic birds and I hope the BTO research can find ways to guarantee their continued return here to brighten up the Spring and Summer.

24 responses to “Serendipity II – The charismatic cuckoo

  1. What marvellous cuckoo photos, Finn. I have occasionally seen one in flight, and once saw one perched clearly atop a low tree, but never in this marvellous detail. I have just returned from the beautiful countryside of Ticino (Italian Switzerland) where, amidst the woods and abundant meadows, there were cuckoos to be heard constantly. Lovely altogether.

  2. Such beautiful images and a wonderful and informative narrative. Really great shots of the cuckoo!

    • Thanks Melanie, I’m glad you like the post. There’s a concerted campaign by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to gain greater understanding of the cuckoo and it’s revealing alot of unknown facts. I’m hoping that this time next year there’ll be alot more to report when the data form the next tagging experiment become available. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

  3. Wow – I am so impressed! I’ve not even heard a cuckoo this year, let alone seen one! A great post. Interesting that your dad is from my home county – I wonder from the song reference, did he get to celebrate May Day too?

    • Hello Theresa, I’m glad you like the cuckoos. I was gobsmacked by the numbers on this trip, I occassionally hear one, possibly two, but they were were numerous both to see and hear.

      I’m not sure if the old man celebrated Mayday (I’ll ask him) but I remember maypoles from when I was a kid so they were a feature of the locality. Where do you originate from? My Dad’s family are from Blisworth.

  4. Finn, an excellent account as ever with some lovely images too. I am only surmising but I imagine the two cuckoos (both males?) were maybe on feeding sorties. From memory, I believe they feed on certain moth or moth caterpillars so perhaps there was a hatching of those in the reed bed. Of course, unlike on farmland, the reed bed will remain relatively undisturbed and will have a high abundance of insect prey.

    Best Wishes


    • Hello Tony,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what gender these two are, but they may well have been feeding. In one of the pictures one of them has a caterpillar in its beak, so there’s definitely some feeding going on. The reedbed is completely undisturbed, it’s in the middle of a nature reserve, so there’s no disturbance, physical or chemical.

  5. I have heard the cockoo many times, but never seen any, unntil now. 😉 Great pictures, lucky you.

  6. Very interesting narrative, FInn. I wasn’t aware that the cuckoo is a red status bird in the UK. Now that I pause to think, I don’t recollect ever seeing one in the UK. But they are a common sighting/hearing in India. Perhaps, the weather has a role to play?

    However, sighting them in flesh and blood is rare indeed. Camouflaged in the dense foliages of trees, it is generally their characteristic call that gives away their presence.

    Radio-tagging those birds must have been a nightmare. Kudos to BTO for doing so.

    Fantastic pictures, as always.

    • Hello HaLin, unfortunately they are declining and have been for years. I heard them regularly when I was a kid but over the last 20 years it’s becoming less and less frequent. I didn’t know they’re in India, maybe there’s a central Asian population that migrate north to Russia to breed? Big hats-off to the BTO for pulling off the tagging experiment though, I’m hoping they will be able to apply that to lots of other migrants in the near future.

      • Cuckoos are fairly widely distributed across India, probably a tad more abundant in the Southern parts than up North (the North, closer to the Himalayas, is colder). I remeber reading somewhere that constraints on food availability pushes these birds towards warmer climes.

        BTO’s efforts are commendable. I hope so too.

        Will try to keep an eye on the cuckoo on my trips. Will share a picture if I manage to grab one.

      • Thanks for the comment HaLin. According to the BTO it breeds in Europe, Asia and North Africa and overwinters in southern Asia and Africa, but unfortunately there’s no more detail. I wonder if the populations in warmer climes are also suffering, and if so, why? I need to do some reading. I’m looking forward to seeing your photographs!

  7. I would love to see one!

    • I’m pleased to say I can now confirm they are amazing to see! I was at a different nature reserve today and they were calling all around, but alas, I didn’t see one today.

  8. Wonderful sightings! I saw a cuckoo for the first time last year and was thrilled because I’d only ever heard them and been unable to actually see one. I only saw it flitting over trees but your photos are terrific, I can imagine how delighted you were to see them and get such great shots. That was very interesting about the BTO tagging too, I hadn’t heard of that.

    • Hello Lorna, I think I was in the same boat – heard them many times but not knowingly seen one. But on this outing there were so many and they were so close that they were completely unmistakeable. There have been several reports about the tagging on the BBC News Science and Environment site in the last few months, it’s a fascinating and remarkable story. I’m amazed that they can make a tag small enough to be carried by a migrating bird and transmitting for a year. It’s a phenomenal technological achievement. I seem to recall hearing somewhere the same trick is being tried with dragonflies!

  9. Interesting read and nice photos as always. 🙂

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