This spring continues to be extraordinary. Yesterday evening, I was out walking the dog and had almost reached home again when I heard my first cuckoo of the year. In farming communities, it’s traditional to note down when this happens, so, to be precise, the time was 19.10 on May 30th 2013. I heard it again in the early hours of this morning, just as the dawn was breaking. (In the one day left of May, ‘he sings all day’!) Every year cuckoos come to call around the village, but this must be my latest first hearing in all the twenty years of my residence. I wonder if cuckoos are also behindhand because of the late spring and whether their June ‘changed tune’ (with an extra ‘cuk’) will be delayed until July?
Cuckoos are fascinating. The name itself, so precise in its onomatopoeic evocation of the call, is exotic. They are beautiful arboreal birds, shy of humans: I’ve seen them on only a few occasions, years apart. They’re pale grey in colour, with a gorgeous dark barred pale underbelly, and have a hawk-like flight and perching posture. What captured my imagination as a primary school child and still beguiles me is their anti-social behaviour. They are the vandals and parasites of the bird world, each one performing its own microcosmic act of ethnic cleansing. The females plant a single egg in the nest of a (usually) much smaller bird, such as a dunnock or a pipit; then, when the chick hatches, it dominates proceedings, diverting with a huge and gaping maw the host parents’ attention from their own offspring before turfing the latter, eggs and/or nestlings, out of the nest, thereby guaranteeing itself a monopoly on the food supply. What is strange is that the foster parents don’t seem to notice, instead running themselves ragged to feed a chick that soon grows to be much bigger than they are.
‘A cuckoo in the nest’ was an expression that I heard a lot when I was a child. It was used to describe someone – often male – whose self-indulgent behaviour and habits were spoiling things for the rest of the family or community: a heavy drinker or a work shirker, for example. It had various gradations of meaning: it was a bit like ‘fly in the ointment’, only more so; it also had overtones of the now over-used ‘the elephant in the room’ – although the latter saying implies that no-one is prepared to mention whatever it is that the elephant represents, which is not typical of forthright Lincolnshire folk. ‘Cuckoo’ is slang (particularly in America) for ‘crazy’, hence the title of the book and film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’; but in Lincolnshire dialect, someone saying ‘You’re a cuckoo’ (as opposed to ‘You’re cuckoo’), was paying you the compliment of calling you witty, or was amused by something that you’d just said. (A variant of this was ‘You’re a caution’.)
So, are cuckoos lovable or not? I think that they remain a puzzle: an enigmatic variant of Nature that has got by without obeying the rules. Like people who live by their wits, they expend a great deal of energy on not paying their way: energy that could equally well be expended on working within society instead of preying on it. Instead, once they’ve deposited their eggs – each female lays up to twelve – they swan off (so to speak!) to tropical Africa, where they spend nine months sunning themselves, the ornithological equivalent of the idle rich. I realise that I’m straying into dangerously anthropomorphic territory here, but it strikes me that the cuckoo is the Raffles of the bird world.
Cuckoos are fast declining in number and I am the more excited, therefore, when I hear their call; they are so traditionally part of an English spring that I hope we don’t lose them.