Thursday 17 January 2019

Country Matters: Plaintive sighs in cloud-cuckoo land

SIGHTING: Long-tailed cuckoo
SIGHTING: Long-tailed cuckoo

Joe Kennedy

Cuckoos and yellowhammers - have I taken off, like the ancient Greeks, for cloud-cuckoo land? But readers have reported sightings and sounds of both species.

I have a vivid memory of standing at a cottage doorway in Leitrim last May, listening to a cuckoo calling across a valley of old lazy-bed outlines, as house martins buzzed above my head.

Yellowhammers were busy in a field in Co Louth and cuckoo activity was reported from Waterford, Kerry and Clare. Near Drumshanbo, I recall a sheep farmer reciting schoolday verses: "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."

I had seen yellowhammers near a rural lane where scrub had been burning after a clean-up - an unapproved activity, but old practices die hard. At this time, tiny common blue butterflies have been plentiful and foragers may pull young nettle shoots for soup-making, as the almost forgotten folkloric Feile na Nauntog has passed when young people used to chase and sting one another amid screams and laughter.

Where there are mature tree-lines, floral candlesticks of horse chestnut indicate a bumper conker crop ahead and "sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu", as a 13th Century monk wrote.

Cuculus canorus, whose procreating behaviour is called obligate brood parasitism, is here from Africa and the male bird is singing to find a partner. Time is precious. The search for a host nest is more difficult as songbird numbers have fallen along with earlier nesting of meadow pipits, robins, wagtails and warblers.

The female cuckoo removes an egg and squirts in one of her own while clinging to the nest rim. Every other day this is repeated, suitable locations being found. The usurper chick grows rapidly, fed by unsuspecting foster parents, and throws out eggs and chicks competing for food. It's a ruthless business.

About 4,000 adult birds arrive each year and feed voraciously on hairy caterpillars - which other birds avoid - the cuckoos having a protective stomach lining, which can be expelled and renewed.

Yellowhammers, or 'yorlings', as they are known in Scotland and parts of Ulster, are of the bunting family. Numbers appear to be centred in pockets after fears for their future because of habitat loss. These birds are rare now - but once their sounds of 'little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese' were familiar.

They lay interesting eggs with dark spots and 'scribbles' which made them the subjects of old wives' tales. William Allingham, poet of the ducks-in-a-pond, wrote of "the plaintive yellow bird sighing in the sultry fields around - chary, chary, chary, chee, only the grasshopper and the bee".

Will such summer sounds be familiar again? Changes in the CAP may not provide solutions. Brussels sceptics say EU agriculture ministers are still pushing for 'business as usual' as the drastic decline in numbers of birds and insects continues. Ariel Brunner, policy head of BirdLife Europe, says greening is 'fake environmental spending' with wildlife-friendly measures shredded by loopholes.

Cloud-cuckoo land, indeed.

Sunday Independent

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