Where have all the cuckoos gone?


It’s becoming an echo of the past, says wildlife writer Jane Adams – the cuckoo’s call is now a rare sound in the UK’s changing seasons

The cuckoo is a dove-sized bird with a blue-grey back, head and chest, and stripey black and white belly. Its sleek body, long tail and pointed wings give it an appearance not unlike kestrels or sparrowhawks

When did you last hear a cuckoo? There was a time when I could rely on hearing one from my garden, its two-tone call carrying on the spring breeze from nearby water meadows. But that was back in the 1980s… now, each spring I think myself lucky to hear one at all, let alone to do so from my own garden.
Cuckoos are a bit like Marmite – you either love them or hate them. The fact that they lay their eggs in the nests of hosts such as reed warblers and meadow pipits and leave these much smaller birds to raise their young for them, feels somehow wrong.

The rude guest
But this behaviour, known as brood parasitism, is not unusual in the animal kingdom. Chances are, you have ‘cuckoo’ bumblebees and ‘cuckoo’ wasps buzzing around your garden right now.
What sets this bird apart from other species of parasite lies in its skilful art of deception. Having spent winter in Africa, cuckoos return to the UK by the end of April. They don’t spend long here, with many having flown south to Africa by the end of June.
They mate, and the female will search for a suitable nest to lay an egg. She will repeat this up to 20 times, laying each egg in a different nest. These eggs – which closely resemble those of their host – will hatch, and the young cuckoo will swiftly remove any other eggs in the nest, demanding to be fed until it can fend for itself.

Many people have heard but never actually seen a cuckoo. You will find them in habitats where there are large numbers of meadow pipits or reed warblers – look out for them perched very still, on the lookout for prey (invertebrates and hairy caterpillars ) and unattended nests.

A seasonal mismatch
So, why is their distinctive call so rare nowadays? There’s a myriad of probable reasons. Despite returning to the UK at a similar time as they did in the 1960s, spring now comes much earlier. This means the caterpillars they feed on might well hatch before they arrive, and the cuckoo’s native hosts may already have hatched their own eggs. Combine these out-of-sync seasonal problems with the fact that more cuckoos are dying on the return journey to Africa, and you can soon see why their numbers have declined: since the early 1980s, cuckoo numbers have dropped by 65 per cent.
When my husband told me he heard a cuckoo recently, I raced outside, desperately hoping to hear it. But after an hour, I still hadn’t heard it. That evening, my mobile rang and the cuckoo ringtone I’ve recently added blared out. “Did you hear it that time?” my husband shouted from the other room. I‘m still deciding whether to tell him.


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