On hearing the first cuckoo in spring


The cuckoo is a remarkable bird and has always had a special relationship with spring. Since the 1980’s they have declined by 65% and I certainly remember them in places that they have long since gone. Why, is a bit of a mystery.

Why the Decline?

It could be due to climate shifts; a reduction in some of the host species; loss of habitat in Africa or in this country, or perhaps at places on their migration route. It could also be linked to a serious decline in their food requirements, particularly the caterpillars of moths and butterflies. This short film, from the Springwatch team, examines how the BTO are tracking the cuckoos enabling them to follow their migration and find out what may be happening during their travels and in their wintering grounds to help explain and hopefully arrest some of this rapid decline.

It’s a bird that I’ve struggled to photograph over the years. I’ve seen them, had them in the viewfinder and lost them at the last minute. So when a good friend said he knew of a place where they were regularly being sited we headed out early morning and were not to be disappointed. During the two hours we spent in the throw over hides a male showed twice on favoured perches and on one occasion was mobbed by a meadow pipit. (Thanks Tim)



In the middle ages people believed that the cuckoo actually brought the spring with them and that on hearing the mating call of the male bird all of spring would start at a pace and that the growth and fertility of the land would reward them with the food they relied upon. Farm workers were given the day off when the first cuckoo was heard and it’s arrival was celebrated by drinking ‘cuckoo ale’.

The Celts and Iron Age settlers had no appreciation or understanding of bird migration and their ideas on what happened to birds that just seemed to disappear remained well into the nineteenth century. Cuckoos were thought to change into kestrels, although surely they have more resemblance to sparrowhawks. Geese and woodcock were thought to fly into the moon and the swallow to hibernate in mud at the bottom of ponds.

Much folklore surrounds the cuckoo and this partly due to it being so often heard but rarely seen. Traditionally the cuckoo was associated with its expected arrival on the 14th April in the southern counties reaching Scotland by the 24th and although a rough guide its timing has shifted somewhat over the years. On hearing the first cuckoo you were best to lay all your coins from your pocket and turn them over or face bad luck. If you were standing on hard ground when hearing your first cuckoo then bad luck would prevail but if on soft ground you could look forward to a prosperous year.


The cuckoo’s secret

It’s a mysterious bird not least because of its parasitic habits and there is a remarkable small seventeen minute silent black and white film shot in 1922 by the pioneer bird photographer Oliver Pike. This showed for the first time how the cuckoo deposits its eggs in the host species nest. The discovery, however, was claimed by the film’s editor  and research ornithologist Edgar Chance. It is fitting that one of the cukoos currently being tracked by the BTO in the study on their migration is called ‘Chance‘ and has been named after the pioneer researcher into the life of the cuckoo.


On hearing the first cuckoo in spring

The title of this post, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, refers to a favourite piece of music of mine and one that quintessentially captures the essence of an early English pastoral scene. It was written by the English composer Frederick Delius in 1912 and the unmistakable phrase of the male’s call can be heard throughout the piece  with the oboe taking the main role.

Sponsoring a cuckoo

It would be really sad if one year we lost this iconic sound of spring and with it one of the most enigmatic of all birds. You can help to stop this from becoming reality by sponsoring a cuckoo and also enjoy watching its progress over the years. It can become addictive!

Filed under: Articles, Birds Eloquent ProjectTagged with: , ,


  1. Whilst walking beside river at Dartmeet Devon heard and saw two
    Cuckoos. They called to each other one alighted on tree and the other joined it. Felt privileged haven,t heard cuckoo call for years.

  2. I’m at nearing the end of my night shift (05.20) and I’ve heard the cuckoo for the first time!!!

  3. Heard cuckoo for first time .So thrilled a joy .

  4. My Mother (bless Her) always on hearing the first cuckoo would spit on the ground and spin around on the spot three times. This bizarrely I do this, but can find no one else outside of my family that has heard of it.

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