cuckoo watch

Though our landscape is full of the sound of cuckoos at this time of year, I’ve always found it quite difficult to actually see them. Their song carries a remarkably long way, and when I’ve followed the source of the sound and spotted one, it always seems to be sat up high on a far away tree top, or flying between two distant perches. Because, when I’m out walking, the song forces itself upon me so much, I often find myself thinking about this bird’s behaviour, and how the energy it expends is so very different to the other birds with whom it shares this space: not focused on nest building, or the raising of its young, but its rather involved parasitic subterfuge. I’ve spoken to people who think of the cuckoo as a ‘nasty’ bird, and regard their nest colonising behaviour as somehow morally reprehensible. But one of the most refreshing things about spending time in the world of birds, I find, is its complete absence of human morals or intentions. Cuckoos do not share human values. They are not canny, sneaky, or malevolent: they are simply doing what cuckoos do.

Tom and I were talking a few days ago about how we never seem to get a good look at a cuckoo, and wondered how we might try to do that. In one place that we go walking, there’s a rocky outcrop and a copse of trees, above a stretch of what was once expansive moorland but which has recently been planted with commercial forestry. We often hear cuckoos there, and its elevated position must provide the birds with a fantastic overview of the landscape, its avian population, the behaviour of its meadow-pippit hosts, and (one assumes) the locations of their nests. Over the past week I (or rather the dogs) have turned up the remains of a couple of broken eggs, the colour of a meadow pippit’s, while walking in this area. Could the host birds be expelling (as they sometimes do) the eggs of a cuckoo interloper from their nests?

Tom was out with the dogs yesterday and came back early. He’d heard cuckoo activity in the copse – the babbling sound of a female alongside two different males so grabbed his camera, and me.

Sure enough, there was the sound of a lot of babbling and cuckooing in the treetops. We positioned ourselves at a bit of a distance. One bird began to fly from high branch to high branch.

Then two cuckoos flew out, and rose high above our heads

The male cuckooing wildly, both birds swooping around each other, diving and soaring through the air

Watching them together, I could see why these birds have folkloric associations with sparrowhawks. Their raptor-like barred plumage is thought to function as a form of Batesian mimicry but their flappy, rather effortful flight patterns also looked quite different from those of hawks.

We stood and watched the cuckoo courtship until the couple eventually flew off into the distance together. It had been a thrilling half hour of cuckoo watching!

Then we walked home past the ancient apple tree, whose blossom is just appearing.

There was stitchwort and bluebells too – late to appear, due to our high elevation.

. . . and the first blooms of the cuckoo flower.

I wondered how the ecology of this habitat will change over the next decade, as the planted trees grow tall. There are already far fewer skylarks and curlews here, and the replacement of these surprisingly rich and varied expanses of scrubby ground with connifer monoculture will surely mean fewer meadow pippits and fewer cuckoos too. A different form of parasitism perhaps – with a primarily economic purpose – upon which one may form different moral views.