Have you heard the one about the disappearing cuckoo?
I’d like to tell you that this is a setup for a brilliant joke that will split your sides, but unfortunately, it’s not.
The common cuckoo, although not yet considered to be a species under threat by the international community, has nonetheless been missing from the English countryside for the last few decades.
There was a time when the calling of the common cuckoo would herald the beginning of Summer, especially in the South and South East of the country. The arrival of this migratory bird, which winters in the warmer regions of Africa and Asia, has long been the sign that Summer has arrived. The call of this bird was even the subject of a yearly write-in competition with The Times, with readers competing to be the first to report the first call of the cuckoo in the country.
Although many commentators have been bemoaning this as another failure of the UK government for a lack of attention to the country’s green spaces, the reason for the drop in English cuckoos might just go beyond a lack of breeding areas.
The readers of The Times and the observant bird fanciers of Britain might well be aggrieved at the loss of this bird’s iconic call, but the absence of the cuckoo might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.
The hikers and walkers of England might well miss the huge variety of calls that the common cuckoo makes in order to communicate the reach of its territory, but you can guarantee that other birds in these habitats will be much happier for it. The majority of cuckoos are brood parasites. Instead of building their own nests, they hatch their own in the nests of other birds and trick them into raising their young.
If this sounds like a rather cruel twist of evolution, then you would be right. Unfortunately, it does get crueller.
The cuckoo has evolved to mimic the egg of it’s target host, meaning although it’s eggs are often much larger than the victim’s own, they appear to be almost identical. Within the seconds of discovering an ideal host nest, the cuckoo will swoop down, hatch an egg and then kick out any other eggs inside.
Even after the infant cuckoo has hatched, this killer instinct doesn’t disappear. The newly hatched bird will instinctively use it’s back to roll out any competing eggs, so that it will be the only mouth to feed in the nest. Although it’s hard to condemn any animal for their instinctive behaviour, it’s hard not to feel slightly relieved that this species has dropped in numbers in the UK.
Before you fear for the future of the cuckoo, take some time to look at the case from an international perspective. Although the last estimate for breeding pairs might seem a little low at around 16,000 – it’s important to remember that this is a species that has many subfamilies that live and migrate all across the world.
Rest assured, there are millions of cuckoos happily breeding throughout the world, just be glad they’re not pillaging the nests of British birds!