Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 19th April


I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t recognise the call of the cuckoo. Perhaps with the exception of the most urbanised of people living within city centres, even if you’ve never actually heard it yourself it’s so ingrained in popular culture that from an early age it’s unmistakeable. Not that many people on the whole have actually seen it, probably making it one of the few (if not only) animals that more people can recognise by sound rather than sight.

However, seeing the cuckoo was far from difficult today. At Fishlake Meadows, the Spring choruses are rousing like an anarchic orchestra, with both the residents and the recent migrant returnees putting 110% into their effort to establish territories and seek mates as quickly as possible. Chiffchaffs speed up their repetitive two-beats with increased frenetic, Cetti’s warblers explode into scattered song from their concealment in the brambles, and the sedge warblers drown out the rest in an improvised staccato ramble even the most creative jazz musician would be proud of.

But old cuckoo chimes superiorly over them all. Flying across the reed beds from the old poplars, his flight is unmistakable – cutting wings dart him precisely through the air remarkably sparrowhawk-like, a deliberate move on evolution’s part to fool potential nest hosts to desert their brood, thus allowing the wily cuckoo to swoop in and deposit it’s own egg in a process of natural cunning. Equally admired and despised, depending on the observer. Today, he perches in the bows of a weeping willow, and through my binoculars he is absolutely resplendent.

Admittedly, if someone who wasn’t aware this was a cuckoo had my view right now, they probably wouldn’t think much. It’s not an especially colourful bird, with little in the way of distinguishing features to one not well versed in birding. In fact, the cuckoo comes across as a remarkable blend of different species. It’s about the size and pastel-grey of our familiar woodpigeons, the chest is barred like the peregrine natural selection has chosen to mimic, and in my sight even the lemon-yellow eyelids strike a quiet glare of raptorial precision. Its overall form is almost like a steroid-pumped version of the warblers it preferentially parasitizes the nests of, sitting calm but threateningly above their songs – the don of the meadows. Al Pacino in bird form.

And then he begins to call. Suddenly, putting the two-and-two together of that familiar yet oft-disembodied song we all know, now visibly coming from the remarkable chimera that produces it, sets off childhood glee (which isn’t hard to do in naturalists). Cuck-coo. Cuck-coo. Cuck-coo. With each syllable, his throat inflates wildly like a feathery balloon, supercharging his song to be heard across the meadow floodplain, warming the hearts of people, striking caution in the minds of nesting songbirds. At the start of each rhythm there’s another sound few hear – a guttural cackle, that to us sounds sly in nature, like a gambler who’s just realised the strength of his poker hand.

Year upon year, the cuckoo’s return delights every generation with its reassurance that Spring has arrived, as if it were the first time they had ever heard his song. Of course, it would be ignorant to mention the continual decline of this bird in Britain, and the very real question of how much longer this will be the case.

I hope that will not be the case for some time yet. Long sing the cuckoo.

SUMER is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wude nu—
Sing cuccu! 

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu, cuccu: 
Ne swike thu naver nu;
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!

– Anonymous

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