Friday, 6 May 2016

May: "The merry cuckoo, messenger of spring"

"The merry cuckoo, messenger of spring,
His trumpet shrill hath thrice already sounded."  Edmund Spenser

"What strikes me as strange, as I walk, cycle, or drive along the village lanes, and hear reed warblers singing from virtually every corner, is that I am not hearing another summer visitor; one intimately connected with this species.  In the time I have lived here, I have never once heard a cuckoo: a sound so closely associated with the coming of spring it is marked by annual letters to The Times newspaper.

"Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!"


Anon, Reading Abbey, early 13th C.  Harley Ms,  British Museum


Just after May Day, when the cuckoo's call should have been echoing across every village green in England, I  bump into a neighbour of ours, Mick.   He has spent his whole life in the parish, and his keen interest in birds makes him an oracle on changes in our local birdlife.  I ask him if there used to be cuckoos here. 'Cuckoos?' he replies incredulously. 'Cuckoos! They used to drive us mad with their calling!'

Yet Mick hasn't heard one in the village for a decade or more…..

The fate of the cuckoo in Somerset has been mirrored across much of lowland England, although the species does appear to be holding its own in Scotland, where cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of meadow pipits, rather than reed warblers.  Why cuckoos have declined, and so precipitously, we are not entirely sure…..

What is certain though, is that if this decline continues, the cuckoo will eventually lose its place as the quintessential sign of the coming of spring.  I doubt very much if the children at our village school have ever seen or heard a cuckoo.  If they are aware of it at all, they probably place it in the same category as the dragon, the phoenix, and other mythical creatures.  In another decade or so, when cuckoos may well have disappeared from the whole of southern Britain, what will they mean to us then, beyond a set of old rural stories and sayings, growing less and less relevant as each year passes?"

Wild Hares and Humming Birds  Simon Moss

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