A seventy-five year old friend was telling Dirty Nails about the sound of cuckoo’s in her youth. She grew up in Surrey and back-along the summer visiting migrant was considered nothing special – in fact, quite the reverse.
In those days the cuckoo was a common bird, its arrival to these shores every April a taken-for-granted fact of life. The sound of that two-syllable’d repeat, which mirrors the birds name, fills her early summer childhood memories in all directions, from cock-crow dawn until lights-out at dusk. There were so many, and they called so predictably, that the human population was relieved when the monotonous chorus ended after a brief but intense few weeks in June. Peace, it seemed, returned to the countryside, for they rarely call outside the breeding season.
In 2010 how things have changed. The cuckoo, by virtue of its fascinating personal habits and rarity, has assumed almost mythical status.
The female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds. She watches the chosen hosts and, when the native batch is unguarded, ghosts in to deposit her oval treasure. It is another miracle of evolution that the egg comes out resembling those laid by the surrogate mother.
On hatching twelve days later, the cuckoo chick is hard-wired to remove all competition. The naked alien, like some muscle-bound weight lifter, wrestles all its rivals out of the nest cradle and down to an early grave below. Not quite three weeks later, at this point a giant in size compared with its dutiful ’parent’, the young cuckoo fledges. Three weeks after that it is independent and flies home to Africa during September, a month or so after the adult birds, to hopefully return in seven months time and repeat the cycle.
But only a few years ago experts predicted the rapid decline, then loss, of this iconic sound of summer. And so it seems the sad truth is coming to pass already in the Vale Of Little Dairies, that undulating spread of lanes and hedges, woods, streams, hills and intimate dips which paint such a pretty rural picture across Dirty Nails’ home in North Dorset. Since the 1980’s British cuckoo numbers have fallen by 59 per cent.
Over-tidy gardens and field corners plus a crash in the Tiger Moth population are possibly related factors in this. Tiger Moth caterpillars are known as ’woolly bears’ on account of their plump and hairy nature. As both dazzling flashes of orange and black adults and juvenile woolly bears, Tiger Moths are down by 75 per cent since the 1980‘s, too. It just so happens that the cuckoo is one of only a few species of bird which actually relishes eating these stick-in-the-throat morsels.
A commonplace sound in the seasonal landscape until very recently, the wildlife-friendly gardener’s last recollection of a St James cuckoo was on the first Thursday in June 2008; a spirit-lifting, pulse-quickening encounter during an early morning stint on the plot.
Individuals do seem to be hanging on in the area, but they’re few and far between. Someone noted hearing a cuckoo cry via the Internet. Another gardener friend thought he heard the bird for five seconds while pausing to inhale the smoke up Semley way. But it was so brief he said, an so unexpected, that he wasn’t one hundred per cent sure.
Copyright, Joe Hashman May 2010