Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

Great spotted cuckoo. Photograph: Jim Dickson

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April 22 was Earth Day, and it also happened to be the day I heard the first cuckoo of the year.

I saw it before I heard it. A bird with a narrow, barred tail and pointed wings in a straight flight.

I took it though for a sparrowhawk as I wasn’t expecting the cuckoo just yet. Maybe it was the late frost, but spring doesn’t quite feel sprung enough for the cuckoo’s call.

It is the male’s call that is most recognisable. While the female is not entirely silent, she has more need to keep a low profile. She has to, if she wants any of her eggs to succeed. The cuckoo’s well-known practice of laying in a surrogate parent’s nest means she can lay as many as 25 eggs in one season.

Cuckoo’s eggs co-evolved to match those of their host species. A survey that examined nests between 1939 and 1972 showed that, in the UK at least, the range of targeted birds is wide – from the blackbird to the wren – but it was the dunnock who was singled out most often, followed by warblers, pipits and pied wagtails.

The female cuckoo will watch her chosen nest, waiting for the host parents to leave. When they do she takes 10 seconds to fly in, remove one of the existing eggs, lay her own, and out again. If she has done her job well, the cuckolded pair never suspect. However, if she is spotted, the potential hosts will inspect their eggs and reject any that look remiss.

If the cuckoo egg passes muster, it will hatch half a day before the others in the nest. When it does, this brand new, blind and bald chick will somehow still manage to roll each egg onto its back – and push them out.

The subterfuge skills it inherits from its parents don’t stop there. A young cuckoo’s begging call is equal to that of a group of the smaller birds. So, the parents keep bringing the same amount of food to its one, now giant, chick, as opposed to the four wee mouths it started with.

Despite these incredible practices, cuckoos have been in decline across Scotland and the UK for the last 40 years. It is one of 67 birds on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Possible reasons for population drop – 65% loss since the 1980s – include shifts in host’s nesting habits and availability of food due to climate change, as well as habitat loss both in wintering grounds and migratory routes.

I wish I could think that its arrival here on Earth Day is a good omen, but I was also told that to see it before you hear it is bad luck. I am grateful then to have heard it at all.