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Waiting for cuckoo

Outdoor Living

DUE SOON The distinctive cuckoo, which arrives here from Africa in late April, is often thought of as the herald of warmer weather.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

James had me cornered at the gable. “Did you hear the cuckoo yet?” His countenance was fierce, his voice intent.
“No,” I told him, “not yet. But he won’t be long, I’m sure.”
“He should be here by now. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he’s killed and eaten along the way. Or else he’s waiting for the weather.”
“On the other hand,” I said, “perhaps he’ll bring the weather with him. That’s what they believe on the continent; or they used to, at least, although I don’t think people believe much any more.”
James went on. “You know he eats those hairy caterpillars – I read about it in a book, and I saw it myself with my own eyes... there was I, watching a man fish below the Erriff bridge, and out came Hairy Molly inching her way over the road. I was just looking and wondering should I help her across, and down came the cuckoo. He snatched her up and went up the river to those pines, where he started calling. Anyway, I was over at Furnace last week and everywhere I looked there’s these same caterpillars, each one the size of my finger, crawling about the heather.”
I knew the ones he meant. “They’re moth caterpillars, looking for somewhere to pupate. They’ll have spent the winter curled up tight in a dry spot, and in a few weeks they’ll be flying around as our summer moths. A hard winter will cut their numbers and if there’s not many moths then everything’s left short. It’s good there’s a lot of them.”
“It’s good if you’re a cuckoo,” said James. He paused thoughtfully. “Except there are no cuckoos. Not yet.”
There often appears to be some kind of competition in hearing the first cuckoo of the year calling, and successes are widely reported. There are false starts, though, as many know well. A form of low whistle can be made by cupping one hand around the other with a hollow between the palms and the thumbs neatly paired. Clever manipulation of the fingers while blowing between the thumbs can produce a sound almost identical to the cuckoo’s call. Many early cuckoos, and I dare say all April Fool’s Day ones, are nothing more than this.
“Did you know,” I asked, “people once believed that if, on first hearing the cuckoo, you find a hair beneath the sole of your foot, it will be the same colour hair as worn by the person you are to marry?”
James looked sceptical and resisted the urge to examine his boots. “I did hear that. But here’s another one for you. If you count the number of calls he makes the first time you hear him, the cuckoo will tell you how many years you have left to live. It’s not looking good for us at the moment, is it?”
“What’s his name in Irish?” I wanted to know.
“He’s Cuaich, nothing more and little different than the name you have for him. The female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, but around here prefers to use the meadow pipit, so she has the name Banaltra na Cuaiche, the cuckoo’s nursemaid.”
I have often seen meadow pipits desperately trying to drive a female cuckoo from the vicinity of their nest, with their gallant assaults on the much larger bird growing more and more frantic as she closes in on their home. She has likely watched them for days and knows exactly where to go to leave one of her eggs and eventually seizes upon a moment of inattention by the pipit pair and pays a fleeting visit to their nest.
The pipits never seem to reject the much larger egg deposited alongside their own. Nor, once this hatches, do they turn their backs on the giant of a baby they have inherited. Instead, they feed and care for it as if it were their own, even when it outgrows their flimsy nest and makes insatiable demands on their care.
While we wait for the cuckoo we have other summer visitors arriving on a daily basis. Willow warblers and the chiff-chaff are singing in the garden hedge, and sand martins are feeding on kelp flies along the coast. Now every day will bring something new.