Wednesday, October 20, 2021
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Cuckoos clocked

Notes from the Sticks: Cuckoos clocked

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A FEW days ago my husband Alan heard a cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) while he was on the fells with the dog. According to the old rhyme, ‘in June I change my tune’, and the books say that the familiar two-note call (made only by males, to attract females and to preserve territory) becomes one note. The one Alan heard was still doing the two notes, so perhaps it has not read the books. Females have a different ‘bubbling’ call.

At a guess no bird figures more in rhymes, myths and songs. No wonder, because they have an amazing life. 

They live most of the year in tropical Africa (where they are silent). They arrive in Europe and Asia in April and the female soon starts scouting for nests made by other birds, such as meadow pipit, reed and sedge warbler, dunnock, redstart, robin and spotted flycatcher. She hangs around until her target leaves the nest, then flies swiftly to it and lays an egg of her own in it. She is gone long before the unwitting host returns. Birds cannot count so the host does not notice that there is an extra egg, and the deception is enhanced by the fact that each female cuckoo is adapted to lay eggs of a similar size and colour to a particular species of small bird. She may visit 25 or more nests of the species in the area and leave an egg in each.

Yet another trick is that the cuckoo lays her egg so that it hatches at roughly the same time as the host’s. As everyone knows, the interloper chick then makes swift work of heaving the unhatched eggs or fellow nestlings out of the nest. I found two brilliant videos which are not especially pleasant watching but I found them riveting. I was particularly interested to notice that the hatchling cuckoo, without feathers, is much more recognisable as a distant relative of ours, with its wings looking and acting like arms. These videos were made somewhere in Asia and the host is not a British bird, but the behaviour is exactly the same (though the onscreen text is idiosyncratic – I liked ‘A baby cuckoo starts doing bad things with accumulated power’). The only query is what the egg is doing on the edge of the nest in the first scene.

The second video starts with a brief recap of the first. 

I like to think that the parent birds are proud of their outsize ‘offspring’.

Now comes the bit I find most extraordinary. While the young cuckoo is still in the hijacked nest, the adult birds head off back to Southern Africa – as the rhyme says, ‘In July away I fly’, though they may leave southern England as early as mid-June. The chicks remain for several more weeks while they grow and learn to fly, then set off on the journey of several thousand miles on their own. 

Some of you may have been hoping for this Simon and Garfunkel song based on the old rhyme and some of you may have been dreading it. 

Here is the performance at the 1981 Concert in Central Park. 

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Last week I wrote about the ravaged verges in our village (which prompted one commenter to remark: ‘I am a little dismayed by the “townie knows best” tone of this article . . . I hope you will come to appreciate the ways of the countryside’) in advance of the annual Best Kept Village competition. Later I wrote to the clerk of the parish council as follows:

‘I wonder if I could register my concern at the brutal mowing of the verges in the village. I suspect this may have been done if West Bradford is entering the Best Kept Village competition. However (a) to my eye it looks horrible and (b) this particular verge was populated with a wide variety of wild flowers, most of which had only just struggled into bloom after the shocking weather. They have had no chance to set seed and so some will probably not appear again next year. 

‘I have consulted the website of the charity Plantlife which campaigns for better management of verges as a useful resource in looking after our wildlife, and it says that verges should be mowed only in late summer, August to September. Doing so earlier not only eradicates wild flowers, it gives a chance for tougher but less desirable plants to thrive, and it deprives insects of their food. It also says clippings should be removed, which has not been done in this case. Their guide is here, if you would like to look at it.

‘I imagine some will say that the villagers enjoy the Best Kept Village competition and want to win it. If shorn verges are among the judging criteria, may I ask that West Bradford Parish Council leads the way in enlightening those who set the rules to make them more wildlife-friendly? I imagine others will say that the river bank is close and a few feet of verge doesn’t make any difference. In fact this last few weeks I have seen several flowers on the verge that I have not seen on the river bank – every tiny bit of land has its own flora and we can’t afford to waste any of it. Particularly when the result is so ugly to look at.’

On Thursday I was delighted to hear that the issue is to go on the agenda for the next parish council meeting. I will report back. 

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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