The cuckoo has undoubtedly found its way into the collective psyche of our nation. Most of us are aware of their unusual way of breeding, and for centuries it’s inspired folklore, literature, and art, as well as poems, songs, and nursery rhymes. For example, Sumer Is Icumen In, sometimes known as The Cuckoo Song, is a medieval song heralding the appearance of summer:
Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
This part of the song details flowers growing, meadows and woods coming into life, and cuckoos singing. The common or European cuckoo is often known as the ‘first sign of summer’ in the UK, migrating in from Africa in April and calling loudly to mate. Most of us will remember hearing the first cuckoo of the year as children, when the weather was warming up and blossom was dazzling on trees in mid or late spring. You might have even sung some cuckoo nursery rhymes, such as this famous one:
Wire briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east and one flew west
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
Which of course, is inaccurate, as cuckoos are famous for laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Species such as linnets, dunnocks, larks and various warblers and pipits can find a new, larger egg in amongst their own. The cuckoo is an expert in ‘mimicry’ – because of their grey barred plumage, they resemble sparrowhawks, enabling the females to visit nests while the parents stay at a distance. Birds from different genetic groups prefer different ‘hosts’, and their eggs match these birds’ in colour and pattern.
The cuckoo deserts her egg in the host nest and leaves it for the other birds to bring up. This can lead to an almost comical image of a chick much larger than its adopted parents, spilling out of the nest as the mother and father perch on its back to feed it. The chicks also have a call which sounds like multiple chicks, to trick the parents into thinking they have a full brood. Once they have mated and laid their eggs, the cuckoos usually fall silent for a couple of weeks, returning to Africa in July or August to overwinter in the warmer climate.
Despite fond memories of hearing cuckoos calling, many of us will have noticed a decline in cuckoos over the years. In fact, data from the British Trust for Ornithology showed cuckoos have shifted north but declined overall in the UK, with a 70% drop in summer residents in England since the 1990s, and a 30% rise in Scotland (where the cuckoo is sometimes known as a ‘gowk’). Several explanations have been considered, including agricultural changes impacting numbers of host species and food species (moth caterpillars). Simon Fletcher explores this phenomenon in his poem ‘Last Cuckoos’.
As well as their integration into springtime celebrations and symbolism, cuckoos have folklore surrounding them in Britain. When you hear the first cuckoo of the year, your luck will be determined by the hardness of the ground you’re standing on. If you turn over any coins you have in your pockets when you hear the first cuckoo, you’ll become wealthy. Some old rhymes exist which give farming advice based on the cuckoo’s behaviour:
If a cuckoo sits on a bare thorn
Sell your cow and buy corn.
The cuckoo’s famous breeding antics have meant they’ve been held for centuries to be representative of adultery and cuckoldry. Perhaps inspired by an old Roman tale that one could alert a husband to the presence of an adulterer by calling out ‘cuckoo!’, Shakespeare noted:
The cuckoo then on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he;
Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O word of fear
Unpleasing to a married ear!
From Love’s Labours Lost, William Shakespeare
So how do we link this unusual bird to our ‘In The Sticks’ poetry project? You can still hear cuckoos on Brindley Heath, the area surrounding Brindley Village on Cannock Chase. Think about some of these questions as a starting point for a poem.
- Could the cuckoo’s behaviour be a metaphor for how humans have ‘used’ the countryside? Despite their parasitic breeding, they don’t ordinarily disrupt the ecosystem. Humans don’t always live harmoniously with nature, but do the physical remnants of their habitation?
- The cuckoo is a badge for the changing seasons. How does change happen in the landscape of Cannock Chase? Plants and animals come and go, just like human intervention.
- Imagine the people who used to live in Brindley Village. What did the cuckoo mean to them – what did summer mean? Would they have been aware of the symbolism and folklore of the cuckoo? Did they dream of being rich and having good luck? Might the cuckoo remind the wounded soldiers of anxieties about their wives’ fidelity?
We hope you find poetic inspiration in this most intriguing of birds. Don’t forget to send your poems in to us for some optional feedback! Contact us using the link on this page.