The cuckoo's long goodbye
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
MICHAEL McCarthy, man of a fine Munster name, is an English journalist and much respected writer on nature topics and the environment.
For some years he has been reporting extensively for The Independent (London) and also writing books.
His most recent work, generously reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, is called The Moth Snowstorm and is a chronicle of unfolding disasters suggesting an ominous new geological metaphor called the 'Anthropocene Epoch' - which is right now - when one species (us) has evolved the power to change and destroy the whole blessed biosphere.
His previous book, Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, waved a fond farewell to that avian parasite and other much more loved birds in today's never-ending saga of bird species' survival against all the odds.
But 'Cucu' is still singing loudly, competing with the stag in the forest and bullock in the paddock and once again heralding that 'somer is a-comen in, lude singe cucu'.
The cuckoo has not gone away and, indeed, this year in Ireland, appears to be making its presence known far and wide. A long goodbye - and may it stretch, and we are hopeful it will.
This being the final flourish of May, in between showers of hailstones and a touch of sleet in the North Leitrim hills, I heard my first seasonal 'singing' (competing with a cock pheasant for attention across a valley) of this sparrowhawk-like bird, the singing and the song being the descriptive words used by one farmer. He, who was in a happy frame of mind after a successful lambing season, had a rhyme from his childhood: "In April, I open my bill/In May, I sing all day (or, night and day)/In June, I change my tune/In July, I fly away."
The bird's distinctive echoing notes influenced Beethoven who used the 'call' at the end of the Second Movement of his Pastoral Symphony. The pitch notes are D and B or D and B-flat treble stave.
For several weeks past I have had messages from west Cork to Mayo, and along the eastern seaboard also, of cuckoos calling. I hope they have found what they were looking for, although many songbird lovers might not approve.
Time is of the essence for these birds to achieve what nature has programmed for them in the 12 weeks or so of their visitation.
For the first time, I saw a bird in flight, singing on the wing. Males have been seeking mates, a difficult task with fewer birds as the little hosts in whose nests their eggs are deposited are also in decline. It's a vicious circle as fewer robins, pipits, dunnocks, etc in the hedgerows can mean a sudden switch of laying plans as eggs are genetically programmed to resemble the host's patterns.
The female cuckoo is a fast mover: having poked out an egg from a nest, she lays a replacement in 10 seconds, repeating the operation up to 15 times a day, if she can find suitable nests.
These birds are breeding machines, in having mated and laid, they rapidly depart back to Africa leaving giant single youngsters rapidly growing in nests from where they have pitched out eggs and young, and almost swallowing their poor foster parents before they too head off in a behaviour pattern demonstrating innate navigational instincts. It is yet another of nature's continuing miracles. Next year, never fear, they'll come calling again.