Photo credit: Jon Hawkins – Surrey Hills Photography
Written by Heather Atchison
Cuckoo cloud dreams
Give me strength for this long passing so high
above the desert, endless flapping through the dark of night
then day then night then day then night then day and finally
give me a soft spring meadow warm for rest, where
pipit pipit tells me I am home, and give me a nest unattended
and the perfect moment to dart in and leave behind my own
delicately patterned to blend in, oh I know I will never see you but
again I must fly, high above the clouds over dusty Spain
4000 miles back to rainforest – please, give me strength.
Case number: 15789
Incident: Disappearance and repeated nest theft
Suspect’s name: Cuculus canorus (street name ‘cuckoo’)
Notable features: blue/grey back and head with striped white and grey undersides
Length: 32cm (just over a foot long)
Weight: 110-130g (roughly the same as two hen eggs)
Place of birth: meadows, heath and wetlands in England, Scotland and Wales
Address: no fixed abode – spends at least 75% of the year in the tropical forests of sub-Saharan Africa and the summer in the UK
Crime pattern: widespread theft of nest space in summer months
Known victims: dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers
Citations: UK Red List of the Birds of Conservation Concern; priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan
Background and evidence
The suspect has long been known for its seasonal crime sprees in England, Wales and Scotland. Females operate by entering unguarded nests and depositing their own eggs before distracting mothers by impersonating the call of the sparrow hawk. Fledgling offspring proceed to oust the rightful eggs and chicks from the nest to maximise their share of food and attention. After said crime spree, the suspect is known to leave the area for foreign soil, its young soon following.
Due to our current preference for remediation and rehabilitation, wider patterns of the suspect’s behaviour are being examined and are shedding light on the drastic decline in UK population (75% in the last 25 years). Tagging initiatives involving known perpetrators have revealed two predominant routes for their 50-60-hour continuous flight between the UK and Africa. Those travelling to and from breeding grounds in Scotland and Wales seem to take a more easterly route traversing Italy or the Balkans. Migrants from central and southern English regions, in contrast, take a more westerly route to Africa over Spain. This westerly route correlates to a significantly higher mortality rate – potentially due to a loss of preferred food, such as hairy caterpillars, linked to more prevalent drought conditions in Spain. This may explain the significant contrast between a 70% drop in numbers in England and a 30% rise in Scotland, suggesting a shift in migratory patterns.
Despite its unfortunate propensity towards nest theft, the cuckoo has a unique cultural value, and the complexity and inherent value of this ‘harbinger of spring’ must not be overlooked. Our nascent understanding of the suspect’s changing behaviour might just be the key to successfully rehabilitating this seasonal migrant to our jurisdiction.