There’s something rather uplifting about the gentle call of the cuckoo drifting across woodland, heralding the arrival of spring. Sadly, though, alarm bells have been ringing for decades over the increasing rarity of one of the UK’s most charismatic spring guests. The good news is that visitors to the Heart of England Forest at this time of year have a very strong prospect of hearing one.
On the danger list
After a shocking 37% decline in the cuckoo numbers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the bird was placed on the official list of the UK’s most threatened species ten years ago. Researchers cited a number of possible reasons for the decline. It is well known that the cuckoo lays between a dozen and 25 eggs in other birds’ nests, but two of the key hosts, the meadow pipit and dunnock, have also been in decline over recent years, leading to decreasing numbers of cuckoos. The species also relies heavily on hairy moth caterpillars for food, and with the numbers of some butterflies and moths falling off, the lack of food is also thought to be having an impact.
A changing world
Another possible reason for the declining number of cuckoos is the changes that have happened along its migration routes. Cuckoos migrate from the UK to tropical Africa, usually in July or August although the younger birds tend to leave a little later. Adults arrive back in the country in late March or early April, following time-honoured routes on their remarkable journey with many crossing the vast and unfriendly landscape of the Sahara Desert.
However, recent studies have shown that it is not the unforgiving desert that has been causing higher mortality rates, but changes to the conditions in some of their stopover points. For example, Spain has suffered a series of droughts and wildfires over recent decades, decimating the cuckoo’s potential food supplies and weakening them at a time when stamina is paramount. Often crossing the Sahara in one 50-60 hour continuous flight, some birds have adapted their migration routes, taking them further east in their quest for a suitable stopover, while others migrating towards the UK break their journey before crossing the desert.
Keeping an eye, and an ear, out
Central England and areas such as The Heart of England Forest are still relatively popular with cuckoos. A solitary bird that values its privacy, an ideal area to catch sight or sound of a cuckoo maybe near marshland – reed warblers are a popular host for cuckoo eggs and, remarkably, the cuckoo has adapted the markings of its eggs to mimic those of the reed warbler and trick it into raising its young. Similarly, meadow pipits lay brownish spotted eggs, so again the cuckoo adapts the markings of its egg to match those of this host!
Regular surveys by the Heart of England Forest team tell us that cuckoos are still to be found in the woodland. While spotting one is a rare treat (look out for long pointed wings, a long tail and barring underneath) it is still the call of the male cuckoo that evokes great excitement. Keep an eye and an ear out when you visit the Forest over the coming months.
Did you know…..whilst they’ve always traditionally been associated with Switzerland, cuckoo clocks actually originated in the Black Forest region of southern Germany. However, the Loetscher family of Zurich, Switzerland can boast it makes the only genuine Swiss cuckoo clocks in the world!
While it’s a long held tradition to write to The Times when you hear the first cuckoo of spring, we’d much rather you let us know. Tell us where and when you heard the distinctive call in the Heart of England Forest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org your data will help us keep track of these fascinating birds.