As I write this column (about 2 weeks before you will read it) I’m disappointed to have to report that I am yet to hear the uplifting sound of a cuckoo’s call. It is one of those quintessentially British sounds of the countryside that heralds the firm arrival of warmer weather and brings to mind things like afternoon tea, country fairs and cricket on the village green.
But, as my dad says in his column from 13th May 1978, it is a bit of a mystery a to why we associate this bird so firmly with our shores, as it is not a native, but merely an annual visitor who chooses to come here for the summer to breed when its own home in Africa proves too hot to bear.
The cuckoo is a bit like the school bully of the avian world. They pick on small defenceless little birds, like the dunnock or meadow pipit, and when they are not looking, hoick an egg out of the unwitting little birds’ nests and lay their own in its place. After about 12 days, the young cuckoo hatches, and immediately displays its bullying nature by chucking all the other chicks out so that it can have all the food to itself.
When all is said and done, the dunnocks and pipits must be a bit dim not to notice that their cute little fledglings have vanished and been replaced by a ravenous monster that looks nothing like them. But no, they keep on feeding the imposter until they are dwarfed by it, at which point it flies off without a backward glance or even a thank you. Unbelievable.
Cuckoos have always been notoriously difficult to spot, and even more so today, as they sadly find themselves on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, along with 66 other species. They have halved in number over the past 20 years, with an estimate of 15,000 breeding pairs due here this year.
One in four UK birds are of conservation concern and need some form of action to halt and turn around their decline. In 2015, there were a startling 20 new species added to the red list, which sees many familiar names under threat, such as the herring gull, kittiwake, nightingale, hawfinch, yellowhammer, house sparrow, tree sparrow, starling and song thrush to name just a few. Even more worrying is that some, such as the puffin, turtle dove, pochard and Slavonian grebe, are facing global extinction.
Like I mentioned last week when talking about butterflies, there are things you can do to help, such as to support the RSPB’s and other bird charities’ fundraising and conservation efforts, which are already seeing some successes. Bitterns were considered extinct by the 1870s, and yet now, their population is at the highest it has been for 200 years. Similarly the avocet disappeared from the UK in the 19th century, only to make a tentative return in the 1940s, and now, in a large part thanks to the RSPB and other conservation efforts restoring and preserving their natural habitats, their numbers are healthy again.
While I was writing this piece, I began to wonder about the word ‘cuckold’ and it’s relationship to the bird, and sure enough, they are connected. We are all probably aware that a cuckold is a man whose wife has been unfaithful, but the cuckoo connection stems from where another man’s baby is raised in the home and at the expense of the cuckold. He is a human dunnock.
The first written use of the term is recorded in a 12th or 13th century satirical poem called The Owl and the Nightingale (author unknown), and then it was used again by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in the late 14th century. Shakespeare was also very fond of it, and a good number of his characters were either unwitting cuckolds, or (rightly or wrongly) suspected their wives to have cuckolded them.
These days it also has the unfortunate fame of being a term in common usage in certain fields of pornography, a fact I only discovered by accident when researching this column. I won’t enlighten you on what eyebrow-raising websites I stumbled upon (albeit only on a Google search results list!), but needless to say, I swiftly changed my search criteria!