Friday 21 July 2017

Merrily sings the questing cuckoo

Bad press: A young cuckoo
Bad press: A young cuckoo

Joe Kennedy

A cuckoo calls, breaking the silence across a valley where outlines of old potato ridges are the only visible traces of the families who lived and laboured here in north Leitrim.

A week ago, further sounds of the cuckoo's mating calls came from west Clare, where, my correspondent reports, 'unusual' caterpillars were spotted on blackthorns. I have been carrying these calls and images from the Flaggy Shore about, thanks to a smartphone.

In timbered corners elsewhere, great floral candles of horse-chestnut blossom show promise of a bumper 'conker' crop ahead. A lonely small common blue butterfly flits about seeking a mate and young nettle shoots have been ready for soup-making since Feile na Neantog - a folklore celebration - at the start of the month.

But 'sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cucu', as a 13th century monk once wrote, and this summer visitor from Africa, whose breeding behaviour is known as obligate brood parasitism, is here. The male Cuculus canorus sings to find a partner because time is of the essence. The birds come to breed, lay eggs and then depart: "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."

The medieval monk had also carried on: "Groweth seed and bloweth mead/And springs the world anew/Sing cucu…" And then, those merry creature-sounds of summer: "Ewe bleateth after lamb/calf loweth after cow/ bullock starteth, buck farteth/ Merry sing cuccu, cucu…"

The birds' search for host nests becomes more desperate each year because of a decline in small songbird numbers and earlier nesting of vital species such as meadow pipits, wagtails, robins, warblers and dunnocks. Cuckoos cannot switch to other species as their eggs are genetically programmed to resemble the species they normally target.

The bird's image as a parasite has long been documented. The Roman writer Pliny claimed the large adolescent in the tiny nest eventually ate its foster parent; Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules called the cuckoo a monster. And in King Lear, Shakespeare has his fool say: "The hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it's had its head bit off by its young."

The female cuckoo removes an egg to be replaced with one of her own and the rapidly growing usurper throws out remaining eggs and any small chicks competing for food delivered by the unsuspecting foster parents. Mrs Cuckoo is a fast mover: having squirted in her egg while clinging to a nest rim, she heads off to repeat the process every other day.

An estimated 4,000 pairs arrive here each year - more, perhaps this time, according to reported sightings. They feed on hairy caterpillars which other birds avoid - cuckoos have a protective stomach lining which can be expelled and renewed.

Music lovers will tell you the bird's pitch notes are D and B or D and B Flat (treble stave). The composer Beethoven, introducing the cuckoo sound at the end of the Second Movement of the Pastoral Symphony, gave D and B Flat. Sing on, summer bird...

Sunday Independent

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