Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus

Have you heard the first cuckoo of spring yet? Was it from the right? Or did you hear it from the left? Worse still, from behind you?

To say that there is a large amount of superstition around the cuckoo is a massive understatement. The superstitions vary, depending on the part of the country or world that they originate in, but here are a few of my favourites:

Comparison of cuckoo and sparrowhawk below, picture credit – Chiswick Chap
  1. The number of calls you hear predicts the number of years you have left to live, or the number of years before you marry, depending on whether you are old and arthritic or a young maid.
  2. If you have coins in your pocket when you hear the first call, you will have no money worries for the next year, especially if you jingle them.
  3. Hearing the call to the right is considered lucky, but to the left or behind is unlucky, with the later a portent of impending doom!
  4. Look for a hair under your foot when you first hear the cuckoo call, If it is grey then you will have a long life. If it is dark you will have a short life.
  5. A German superstition maintains that the cuckoo turns into a sparrowhawk on St John’s day.
Comparison of sparrowhawk and of cuckoo above, picture credit – Chiswick Chap

Members of the cuckoo family can be found on every continent of the world except Antarctica. The common or European cuckoo is a summer visitor to northern Europe and the UK, traditionally arriving in the country from Africa on or around the 15th of April. They are relatively short visitors leaving by late June for the return trip, coming here to breed.

Whilst here, they can often be found in woodlands and marshy reed infested areas, feasting mainly on invertebrates with hairy caterpillars a particular favourite.

The common cuckoo is perhaps most well known as a brood parasite – it relies on other birds, often much smaller than itself, to hatch and rear its young.

Reed Warbler feeding a common cuckoo chick., picture credit – Per Harald Olsen

Being approximately dove sized, the adult birds have generally grey plumage with a lighter coloured barred breast, that bears a striking similarity to a sparrow hawk. It uses this plumage colouration and similar flight patterns to mimic the sparrowhawk, scaring smaller birds from their nests so that they can lay their own eggs into the clutch.

The cuckoo chick, once hatched, proceeds to empty the nest of any competitors by pushing other eggs or chicks over the side. Its cries mimic a brood of other chicks causing the surrogate parents to busily feed the chick – often to the point of exhaustion.

This piece of unattributed poetry sums up the cuckoo nicely:

Seldom seen but often heard,
The Cuckoo is an idle bird,
It lays its eggs in another’s nest,
And the foster parents do the rest.

Cuckoo in flight, picture credit – Volgelartinfo

Their reputation and the superstitions that have grown up around them are perhaps well deserved.

Despite their Machiavellian behaviour, common cuckoos are now in decline and are on the red list.

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