“Summer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu!”
Such is the ecstatic opening passage of the famous medieval folk song ‘Summer is Icumen In’, glorious words which in their old english dialect glug from the mouth like a cool and thick ale out of the barrel. They have become stuck in my head since my brother first discovered them, and since seems to recite it on any bright day walking in the country where bird song is rife, regardless of whether the ‘cuccu’ in question is present or not.
But on this afternoon, it is here. My brother is not, so its up to me to recite the olde english ode to its arrival. Sitting in the highest possible perch in the tallest poplar, the cuckoo sits like the conductor to the orchestra to the reedbeds below: Upon seeing it in the distance, his ‘cuc-koo’ call that everyone can recognise since childhood seems the dominant cry in the first quarter of the meadows. Here the wet grass is dominant and the reeds and sedge short – murmurs of birdsong emerge from here rather than symphonies, where the song of one livens the background level of sound instead of being an integral part of it.
But pass the row of poplars in which cuckoo sits into the heavy cluster of reeds behind his back, and his orchestra comes alive. It is a chorus of birdsong integral to the British spring and summer, yet one that not many will recognise given it’s distance from the woods and our gardens. The warbler orchestra is savoury where the woodland songbirds are sweet, but just as two wildly different music genres can be equally beautiful, so to are the songs of the sedge, the reed and the cetti’s warblers. The reed is the more unsure of the three’s songs, a sharp crackle that sounds like a once-fluid note has been broken into pieces; in Mike McCarthy’s excellent piece of writing on our summer migrants, Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, he notes how naturalist Mark Cocker describes the reed warbler’s song as sounding nervous “I-I-I-can’t-can’t-quite-quite-get-get-get-my-words-out-out-out”. A remarkably apt description.
Then there is the sedge warbler, and if the reed was the unpopular kid lacking confidence in the classroom, then the sedge is the extroverted king-of-the-playground everyone wants to be friends with. From a high-pitched tweet to a rasping grate then a bubbling whistle in a matter of seconds before it starts over, the variety of the sedge warbler’s song makes it stand out in star billing.
That is until the cetti’s warbler decides to make himself known. This small, inconspicuous bursts into the chorus from his place of hiding without warning, and pierces it like a needle in a balloon. It’s short, sharp and loud call is more akin to ‘typical’ birdsong in sound, but in rhythym sounds like someone of a large degree of importance stepping up to the front and declaring “Right – I’m – GOING TO RABBIT ON, GOING TO RABBIT ON, GOING TO RABBIT ON!” In appearance the cetti’s may be unassuming – a typical ‘little brown job’ – and keeping itself hidden away under the reeds and brambles. But its unmistakable voice makes it more than a memorable cast of this ‘warbler-chestra’.
Of course, the idea of this orchestra of warblers welcoming the warmer weather with song is just another anthropomorphic musing – in reality, it’s a fierce competition to establish their territories since arriving from Africa, so perhaps a riot would be a more apt term. Even the conductor cuckoo is of a darker nature to our eyes. There’s a reason they are common in reedbeds, given the plentiful supply of nests from their favoured host species, the reed warbler. But then, nature was never meant to be taken quite literally – it has guided and inspired us, even if what we perceive isn’t the reality. The cuckoo isn’t signing in jubilation of warmer days and better harvests – but where would our jubilation at spring’s arrival be were the cuckoo not here?