Winter is over; the weather is slowly improving, the blossoms are out and the cuckoo is sounding its’ distinctive herald to the oncoming summer. Or is it? Not according to the RSPB, who are concerned that our native cuckoo numbers are falling into further decline, which could take it from the Amber List where it currently sits, to the Red List; a register of the UK’s most endangered breeding birds.

The theories behind this alarming new nosedive are many, ranging from a decrease in food and water in Southern Africa thanks to ever increasing temperatures, to a decline in ‘host-species’. The cuckoo is renowned for laying its’ eggs in the nests of other birds, prompting them to raise the young on it’s behalf. The species chosen by the cuckoo for this nannying job are widely varied, but over eighty percent of the foster parents are made up of reed warblers, meadow pipits and dunnocks. It may just be an unhappy coincidence, but these three species are also facing a significant decline.

The increased journey that the bird now has to make, thanks to the expanding, already vast Sahara Desert that must be crossed as part of each migration cycle, is another possible explanation. Combined with the shortage of resources in Africa, this is affecting other species such as sedge warblers and sand martins in a similar way.

For generations and indeed centuries, people across Britain have listened for the first cuckoo of the year on a spring day in April.
Wordsworth wrote: ‘O blithe Newcomer! I have heard,/ I hear thee and rejoice,’ O cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,/ or but a wandering Voice?’

Mike McCarthy, says of the cuckoo in his of newly published book ‘Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo’, ‘what they mean to us, really, is hope. Hope is there in the annual arrival of all of them, small creatures making their giant, incredible journeys and then pouring into our countryside in a singing cascade.’

‘This is more than a loss of species: this is a loss of meaning, on an enormous scale. It is a sign that something is going awry at the heart of things.’

Only between 10,000 and 20,000 breeding pairs of cuckoos currently arrive in the UK each year. It would be an absolute tragedy if we were to lose such a key element of the spring soundscape in our gardens and countryside.

To hear a cuckoo noise, so that you know what to look out for go to the British Library listen to nature archive at: http://www.bl.uk/listentonature/soundstax/birdparrots.html

For more information about cuckoos and how to help go to www.rspb.org.uk

‘Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo’ by Mike McCarthy is published by John Murray General Publishing Division and costs £16.99 from all good bookshops.

  • Paula Yates

    We heard the cuckoo at tring reservoirs hertfordshire yesterday!

  • Brenda Bartlett

    My husband heard the cuckoo today and then I also heard it . We were in our garden in Chaddesley Corbett in Worcestershire Saturday 18th April 2009