The cuckoo – an oracle of joy and disaster

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‘The cuckoo comes in April. She sings her song in May. In the middle of June she changes his tune, And in July he flies away.’

It was definitely spring. As the car drove up the hill, the gorse bushes reflected the sun in a blaze of yellow.

The colours of the primroses and the bluebells at the side of the road were a welcome relief from the overall dullness of the passing winter months.

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When I first caught sight of the bird as it flew away from us, I thought it was the fairly common sight of a sparrow hawk. The back and wings were slate grey and it had the distinctive barred chest but when it landed on a fence post I could see the crucial differences.

A meadow pipit feeding a cuckoo chick.A meadow pipit feeding a cuckoo chick.
A meadow pipit feeding a cuckoo chick.

It lacked the cruel hooked beak and the deadly talons. It was not equipped to slaughter small birds but was less ferociously adapted. Its diet is insects and caterpillars.

At first glance it had fooled me but this form of camouflage was part of the cuckoo’s weaponry. Small birds would also mistake it for a hawk making space for the cuckoo to pursue its nefarious breeding habits.

As a child it was an annual treat to hear the first call of the cuckoo as it meant the spring had begun. They were so common that their monotonous call soon became a boring annoyance.

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Their call is now confined to more restricted locations rather than the widespread rural phenomenon it once was. Along with many other birds, their numbers have fallen in the past fifty years.

'Cuckoo country' in North Inishowen.'Cuckoo country' in North Inishowen.
'Cuckoo country' in North Inishowen.

The usual suspects for the dramatic degrading of our countryside are hedgerow destruction, overuse of pesticides and pollution of air, sea and soil. In addition, there is the impact of climate change on the cuckoo’s arduous migration.

Our cuckoo had just arrived after its long journey from central Africa. Fifty years ago I made the same journey as the cuckoo. I left Cameroon in west Africa and flew to Paris. The flight was the best geography lesson I ever had.

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The green of the tropical forest changed to the brown of the savannah region. The Sahara appeared completely colourless, 1500 miles of nothing.

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An adult cuckoo.An adult cuckoo.
An adult cuckoo.

Passing over the Moroccan mountains, the impossible blue of the Mediterranean was another amazing contrast before eventually landing in Paris after a six- hour flight.

The cuckoo I saw had completed the same journey taking not six hours but nearer two months to leave the forests of central Africa to eventually arrive on a hillside in Donegal.

Many migratory birds arrive around the same time as the cuckoo: swallows, swifts, martins and many varieties of warblers.

They busy themselves with finding mates, building nests, laying and hatching eggs and feeding their chicks. They are aided by two factors available in Ireland, sufficient food supply and the long daytime hours that they cannot find in the tropics.

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The Sangha River in the Congo basin, from where the cuckoo makes its long migration north to Derry and Donegal.The Sangha River in the Congo basin, from where the cuckoo makes its long migration north to Derry and Donegal.
The Sangha River in the Congo basin, from where the cuckoo makes its long migration north to Derry and Donegal.

The ditty at the beginning of this piece is incorrect. The cuckoo’s call is made by the male bird. Using his song, he is seeking to mate with a female. He is the same as all the other birds at this time of year.

It is then that their breeding patterns diverge from the normal. The cuckoo is a complete parasite. Aided by its hawk like camouflage, the female cuckoo seeks out target species.

In the moorland area where we saw our cuckoo, this unenviable role is filled by the meadow pipit. Many small unsuspecting songbirds serve the same purpose. The cuckoo removes one egg from the nest substituting one of its own.

Once hatched the baby cuckoo sets to work jettisoning the eggs or chicks of its host. The unsuspecting foster parents continue to raise their enormous foster child until it is ready to fledge and leave the nest.

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Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this story is that parent cuckoos, with no need to hang around, return immediately to central Africa.

Cuckoo in flightCuckoo in flight
Cuckoo in flight

Months later their children navigate the same return journey in autumn. A migration, with threats of predators, starvation, weather and the enormous distance of five thousand miles, is achieved with no guidance and no prior knowledge of destination.

We have no idea about how they manage this. Words like mystery and instinct explain nothing and only disguise ignorance.

Sitting in the car my wife and I were delighted to hear the cuckoo’s call – a sure sign spring had arrived at last. She asked if there were any lessons its story had for us as human beings.

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She was thinking of the generosity of adoptive and fostering parents who raise children who are not their own.

Apart from that there is no fit. The worst crime drama or horror film could not equal the plot of the cuckoo’s existence: cunning disguise, forced adoption, a murderous offspring in the family home slaughtering all foster siblings, foster parents worked to exhaustion raising a child spoilt beyond imagination.

Added to this, is complete abandonment by the real parents leaving their offspring to find safety in an unknown destination thousands of miles from their place of birth.

My wife was right in another sense. There is a deadly serious message that the call of the cuckoo is indirectly broadcasting to our modern world.

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The general decline in bird numbers is clear warning that all is not well with our environment. As the host species of the cuckoo fall in numbers, the cuckoo itself has less chance to breed successfully.

In addition, climate change has had a catastrophic impact on their twice-yearly migration to and from central Africa. More frequent periods of drought have led to changes both north and south of the Mediterranean.

Visitors to Spain will be aware of the publicity about the problems of emptying reservoirs. South of the Mediterranean the problems are more severe.

More frequent drought conditions have expanded the Sahara, converting the grasslands of the Sahel into a desert. This had made finding food more difficult not just for migrating cuckoos but also for the people of the former Sahel.

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The Sahel was always a tough place to live but climate change has made life impossible for many. They are not facing problems like drained swimming pools or less frequent showers on a holiday in Spain.

Climate decline is a major cause of the problems of the region. The terrible wars in Ukraine and Gaza fill every news bulletin but a far worse conflict rages in Sudan with comparatively little publicity.

From Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Eritrea on the Red Sea drought, famine, political instability and all-out war has made the Sahel an impossible place to live.

Many of its inhabitants are forced to cross the desert for refuge in Europe, some of them drowning in the English Channel. The terrible irony is that climate change has been caused by the countries to which they flee not the ones they are forced to leave.

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At the 2015 global climate conference in Paris, a 1.5 degrees increase in global warming since the industrial revolution was set as an achievable target.

In the past few days scientists have warned we will smash through this level. It would be sad if the cuckoo’s decline continued to a point where our grandchildren never heard its call, the story of its bizarre lifestyle only to be found in their books, much like the dinosaurs which fascinate them today.

Its strange call has always been seen as a harbinger of the joys of spring. It should also be viewed as a clarion call alerting us to the mess we have made of our natural environment and its impact on humanity.

In human terms the cuckoo’s child rearing habits are despicable but they know no better. They have no regard for the damage they cause to their hosts nor to their abandoned children.

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We do know better but have done far worse. We have made a mess of our countryside, rivers, lakes and sea and even worse we are destroying the lives of people living far away whose only crime was to be born at the same time as us.

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