Loudly Sing Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo. Author: Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHRO791. GNU Free Documentation License

Every year, from April onwards, I listen for the distinctive call of the cuckoo when I’m out on my walk, and yesterday, I was not disappointed. It’s a little later than I’ve heard it in some years, when the spring weather has been warmer and the prevailing winds are more favourable. In 2012, I heard the first cuckoo in March – but that was an unusually warm spring. This year we’ve had some very cold, northerly winds which would not be at all favourable for migratory flights from Africa to Europe.

I find the cuckoo, and its habits, quite fascinating, and decided to look up a few facts about the bird to share on my blog.

The name cuckoo comes from the Old French word cucu. It first appears in 1240 in a poem Sumer is icomen in. In modern English, the first two lines are:

Summer has come in

Loudly sing cuckoo.

The cuckoo’s song can be heard on this video, appropriately titled, Cuckoo Song.  (A few moments of listening to this one might drive you cuckoo!)

The male’s song, goo-ko/cuckoo is usually given from an open perch, often at the top of a tree on the edge of woodland, although cuckoos can often be heard/seen in grassland and reed beds. During the breeding season the call can generally be heard in groups of 10–20 with a rest of only a few seconds between. The first note is higher than the second, as can be heard in the video. (The female call is quite different – more of a loud bubbling sound.) If you hear a cuckoo singing you will probably not see it until it stops, which is when it flies away from its song post.

The adult males have bluish-grey upper parts and a white belly with dark, horizontal barring. Females have two forms. One is similar to the male but the breast is light brown with dark barring and the other is reddish brown, and often covered with dark bars. In flight, the cuckoo can be mistaken for the kestrel or sparrowhawk because of its long tail and swept back wings, although the sparrowhawk does not have pointed wings.

Euopean Cuckoo and Sparrowhawk

Images of a European cuckoo (top) and a sparrowhawk showing the extent of mimicry. Author: Chiswick Chap. Creative Commons.

Other than its distinctive call, the cuckoo is perhaps best known for its breeding habits! It is known as a brood parasite – the only one to breed in Britain. This means that females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, known as foster species. Certain foster species are preferred, including dunnocks, meadow pipits, reed warblers and robins in Britain, although many more host species have been identified in cuckoo breeding areas. Each female specialises in using a particular host species and will establish a territory in which there are a number of potential foster nests. She will carefully observe activity and wait until the nests are at the right stage. Then she swoops down, ejecting an egg of the host bird and laying one of her own that mimics the markings of those of the host bird’s eggs.

Cuckoo eggs and reed warbler eggs

Four clutches of reed warbler eggs, each with one (larger) cuckoo egg. Author: Chiswick Chap. Creative Commons.

The female is helped in this dastardly deed by her mate who, readily jumps into his role of mimicking a sparrowhawk. His appearance close to the nest is enough to distract the small birds long enough for the female to hop in and deposit her egg.

Common cuckoo in flight

Common cuckoo in flight. (Deutch Kuckuck). Author: Vogelartinfo. Creative Commons

The host bird, knowing nothing of this, will incubate and feed the impostor.

Reedwarbler feeding cuckoo chick

Reed warbler feeding a common cuckoo chick in nest (brood parasitism). Author: Per Harald Oisen. Creative Commons.

Once hatched the cuckoo chick instinctively pushes all other eggs and chicks out of the nest, and continues to thrive. It often grows to be far bigger than its ‘adoptive’ parents.

Cuckoo Chick

Chick of common cuckoo in the nest of a tree pipit. Author: Vladlen666. Creative Commons

As a brood parasite, the cuckoo has become a symbol of infidelity and selfishness. A ‘cuckoo in the nest’ can refer to an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation – or something that grows quickly. In the novel, Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is introduced by Nelly as a cuckoo’s story – which anyone who has read the book will understand. The word cuckoo is also sometimes used, informally, to describe a mad or psychotic person.

The cuckoo’s behaviour does little to endear it to us – our sympathy goes out to the poor little reed warblers, dunnocks and other birds who lose entire clutches because of it. But as they say, that’s life – and I still like to hear my first cuckoo of the year. Its call really is ‘the harbinger of spring’.

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July far far I fly
In August away I must

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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44 Responses to Loudly Sing Cuckoo

  1. Meritings says:

    Lovely descriptive piece. My childhood version was:
    Cuckoo comes in April
    Sings his song in May
    Changes tune in the middle of June
    July he flies away.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Meritings! There are a few versions of this song, as far as I can see. The one I know best is slightly different to yours. I just couldn’t remember the exact wording after the ‘May’ line when I wrote the post last night, so I quoted the one I found online instead. I must say, I don’t think it has as good a rhythm as either yours or the one I know, but it means pretty much the same.

  2. Joy Pixley says:

    Cuckoos are a much lovelier bird than I had realized. I especially liked the shot with the bird in flight. I can see how they have attained so many negative social connotations, although it’s interesting to note that most of the metaphors blame the cuckoo chick for being bad. It’s not the chick’s fault the parents left the egg there! But then, it’s not the parents’ fault either, really; they have to follow their instinct. Still, I’m surprised there aren’t more sayings that link lazy parents to being like cuckoos (or other brood parasite birds).

  3. I loved reading your post, Millie! Growing up in the countryside and with the forest not very far from the house, l could hear it every single spring and was always fascinated. In Romania we have this old tale that you must have eaten something in the morning before hearing it the very first time every spring otherwise you would have had bad luck all year long. I remember grandma asking us kids to have a slice of toast right next to the bed and eat it as soon as we woke up.
    How l miss those childhood times!

    • milliethom says:

      What a lovely comment, Daniella. I love to share people’s memories. It sounds as though you miss Romania very much, but I hope your life is happy now, too. Childhood memories are wonderful things. I love the story about hearing the first cuckoo in Romania and your grandma’s insistence that you all eat toast as soon as you woke up. Such a lovely old custom. It’s a shame so many of them are now dying out.
      I intend to do a little catching up on people’s posts over the next day or so, so I’ll be popping over to yours very soon. (I’m just having a few moments break from my book!)
      Thank you so much for commenting – and liking.

  4. amommasview says:

    Remember its call… When you heard it you knew that summer’s near. A very interesting bird!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Momma! Yes, I imagine the cuckoo’s call would remind you of Switzerland. I don’t think you have cuckoos in Australia, although there are several related species to this bird in other parts of the world – like roadrunners, anis and coucals. I intended to put that in my post! I agree, the cuckoo’s habits make it really fascinating.

  5. Shivangi says:

    Great info on cuckoo bird… Millie. A very interesting read too😀

  6. draliman says:

    Interesting read! Nasty cuckoos. They should sort out their own babies, the lazy things.

    • milliethom says:

      Ha ha! I totally agree. But at least this method gets the real parents out of the sleepless nights and never-ending feeding routines. Not to mention toilet training! 🙂 They can swan off and fly back to Africa to start partying in the sunshine.

  7. Great post Millie, great explanation as ever. I shall now be more informed as I walk around my locale…!

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks Cameron. If cuckoo’s are around, you won’t miss them. I heard a few when we lived in Grove. Hope all is well with you and Hadrian’s Wall is still on – whenever you’ve decided to do it. Last week you were wondering whether to change the date.

  8. Love this article.

    The girls are following the progress on some Robins (magnificent blue.) progress.

    Birds air just amazing.

    Vladlen did an amazing job with that last photo.

    • milliethom says:

      Hi Faraday! Yes, our whole family is mad on birds. Living in the countryside, surrounded by a mixture woodland, farmland, ponds and open meadow, we do see a lot. So many birds come into our garden regularly, too, including pheasants and partridge. We’ve also had green woodpeckers and a regular sparrowhawk, after all the little songbirds around here. I’m told the British and American robins are quite different, but I’ve not yet looked it up to see in what ways.
      I’ve just been onto your blog to do some catching up and find there’s nowhere to comment. I think you said you’d disabled comments after you came back from Hawaii. Are you leaving it that way, or is it just a temporary thing? You have some excellent posts recently – love the ten facts!

      • Hi Millie.
        The girls wanted comments since they can only read them. So many filters…lol.

        The girls didn’t go to Hawaii but would love to.

        It was be wonderful to be surrounded by such beautiful wildlife. The bird kind.

        FC

  9. Wow !so lovely really good one

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you for the nice comment! I haven’t yet responded to your follow, but I’ll get to it as soon as I can. Thank you so much for following my blog.

  10. Wonderful post! I love to listen how birds sing, not only penguins 😉

  11. milliethom says:

    Thanks, Rockhopper. I love birds, too, and I share your love of penguins – although I haven’t seen any in the wild, as you have. We have dozens of songbirds here, and the dawn chorus is at 4 am right now. As we’re surrounded by trees, with bedroom windows open, we might as well get up and sing along with them! 🙂

  12. They are late this year. Only heard my first one on the moor on Saturday.

  13. Antonia says:

    I really enjoyed this Millie, and have to admit, I didn’t know much about the cuckoo bird. This is so interesting and I had no idea that there were birds that would do this. It makes sense that insane people are sometimes called cuckoo. Great post!

  14. inesephoto says:

    I absolutely enjoyed your post! Cuckoos are not easy to spot, I have seen a cuckoo once, but I have heard them quite often, from afar.

  15. Hi Millie, this is such a beautiful post, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and learnt so much! Nature always fascinates me. Your pic’s are stunning as always.
    I am behind again in my blog reading, so please forgive late responses. Have a lovely weekend 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks Lynne. I love birds, and could probably do posts about many we get around here. They wouldn’t be the exotic species that you get down in SA thought. I’m permanently late with reading blogs at the moment, so no need to apologise to me. I’m getting round again, slowly. Hope your weekend is going well, too. 🙂

  16. irinadim says:

    Oh what a lovely post, Millie! Although the cuckoo is not nice to little birds, its call is so sweet. I know a German song which imitates its call ” Cuckoo, cuckoo calls from the woods….”. There are no cuckoos in Australia, as far as I know.

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, irina. I just had to write this one. I was so pleased to hear the cuckoo, as it was getting late for it to arrive. Some years, when spring is cold, they don’t get here at all, but veer off and fly to the continent, where it’s warmer. Mind you, I can’t blame them for that! The cuckoos’ life is very interesting. I watched a programme once, about it’s life down in Africa over the winter. Germany is so well known for cuckoo clocks, so I’m not surprised they have songs about the bird down there. You’re right though, the cuckoo’s breeding habits aren’t pleasant at all.

  17. Susan Langer says:

    I loved reading about your cuckoo birds. We are learning about birds around here too. With the grandchildren growing (4 and 7) we put up two bird feeders and bought two bird books for Tennessee birds and we are learning to identify the birds and their habits and migration. Everybody is loving it. 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks Susan. Birds are fascinating, aren’t they? It will be lovely for your grandchildren to get to know your local species and their habits. I know you don’t have cuckoos out there, but you do have lots of beautiful and colourful species. All my family are mad on birds. We have feeders and nesting boxes all over the place. One of our sons has even set up a little camera in a blue-tit box in his garden. They can actually watch the eggs hatching and the adults fetching in food tor the chicks. 🙂

      • Susan Langer says:

        It’s amazing. Of course we first had to deal with the squirrels stealing all the bird seed but my son-in-law, Geoffrey found on the internet a perfect solution…a metal slinky. It keeps them from climbing the shepherds hook but it doesn’t interfere with the birds at all and only $3.50. What a deal. 🙂

  18. Norma says:

    Before reading this post I used to love the bird but now I know how selfish they are but on the other hand one can say – smart parenting and a good parenting partnership. I was just reading about parenting gap a few days and remembered it when I finished reading this.
    Very interesting post Millie. 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Hi Norma. Sorry for this really late reply, but I haven’t been on my blog for almost two weeks (I’ve been getting my flash fiction book ready for publishing some time in July).
      I agree with what you say about the cuckoo. Their behaviour of laying eggs in other birds’ nests is odd, but must have evolved as the best way for the cuckoo to survive, and prosper. Most of the cuckoos who came to Britain from Central Africa will be flying away again this month. Thank you for liking the post, anyway! 🙂

      • Norma says:

        Oh, that’s ok Millie your absence suggested that you would have been busy with the book. I’m so glad to hear about the news and happy for you. All the best! 😀

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