I don’t think anything quite compares to hearing the first cuckoo of the year. If cuckoos were as common as muck and lived here all the time they would still, like wood pigeons, cast a spell over the ears. That perfect interval, so finely tuned to grab the attention, so utterly recognisable and speech-like that whoever named the cuckoo really had no choice, echoed across the south side of the Yare valley today with a strength and clarity that suggested this was a bird on a mission.
By rights we shouldn’t think much of cuckoos. The ultimate exploitative non-dom, they spend most of the year gorging themselves in the steamy climes of central Africa, before flying up to Europe and hoodwinking some eager but deluded locals into raising their offspring. If they were people, we would despise them and get Interpol involved.
But they’re birds and actually their annual round trip is a pretty extraordinary achievement. For a start they’re on the menu in many of the countries they pass through; then there is the immense obstacle of the Sahara Desert and just the sheer distances involved. The BTO satellite tagged a cuckoo and named it Chris, after their President, Chris Packham. In four years Chris has racked up nearly 50,000 miles. So when cuckoos get to Britain, they’re kind of coming home but in the knowledge that they’ll soon be off again (early August for adults). While they’re here it’s all about the breeding: get those genes passed on quick sharp.
Hence the call. It feels like an ecstatic celebration of homecoming and surviving an arduous and deadly journey but really it’s more of a chat-up line, an advert that here is some fine and fancy cuckoo DNA. Happily for us, it’s a thing of rare beauty and we can see it as a sign that Spring is well established, that the warm winds of the south are bringing the heat of summer and that life, against all odds for the cuckoo, goes on.
If you are fortunate enough to hear a cuckoo in the next few weeks, slap out a tweet with #heardacuckoo and consider submitting a record to BTO Birdtrack: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/birdtrack/taking-part/recording-your-sightings/roving-records