Where have all the cuckoos gone?
Well the few that remain have hopefully gone into reed warblers’ nests. She in the picture could well have been brooding a monster.
Cuckoos have vanished from my two long-term recording plots of Kingley Vale and West Dean Woods these past six years. But Sussex still has about 150 pairs and many relate to marshland where reed warblers nest.
Recently cuckoos have departed back to Africa very early. One TV star fitted with a radio collar by the BTO was tracked south of Paris at the beginning of June a couple of days after tagging as it fled England.
Normally the males stop calling by June 10, but some are more noisy than others.
One sang persistently in Chichester in 1922 when a certain Mr Morris counted 482 calls almost non-stop.
I have in the past had those lusty troubadours challenging my efforts at repeating their refrain. They would come down to within yards of my head sqwarking violent insults and challenges. I would just carry on blithely cuckooing.
For hours after their fury continued and had I counted I could easily have doubled the record set by Mr Morris. Sometimes they would even follow me, imagining I was a mighty cuckoo and they were probably right.
What fun we as a nation have had with cuckoos over the centuries. It seems inconceivable to lose them. But would modern Homourbansis care?
A reader from Bognor tells me she was saddened to find her ten-year-old grandchildren had no idea cuckoos laid their eggs in other birds’ nests.
In my youth every boy in the village longed to find a cuckoo’s egg, or see the youngster in its unsuitable foster nest.
In Shakespeare’s day most birds’ names were commonly in use. The Fool in King Lear knew the common cuckoo host well enough, as birders do today: “For you know, nuncle, the hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had its head bit off by its young.”
Then there was gossip with cuckolding in The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, All’s Well That Ends Well, and others.
Both Beethoven and Delius famously used the song.
Some think the bird gave musicians the idea for the minor scale, altering during the season from the interval of a minor third, on to major third, and so onward to fourth and fifth.
Gilbert White found most cuckoos were in D, but at Selborne he found two disagreeably together. One in D, the other in D sharp.
Dr Arne in his notation for the song in Love’s Labour Lost gives it as C natural and G.
The oldest secular song which was notated in the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) is still familiar to us today: “Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu. Groweth sed, and bloweth med, and springeth the wde (wood) nu; sing cuccu...Wel singes thu cuccu, ne swik thu naver nu” (Well singest thou cuckoo, Mayest thou never cease).
And so sing all of us, I hope.