Cuckoo Casualties

Chance's standard text on cuckoos, set about with some of the cuckoo chick feathers from fox kills I have found in the past weeks.
Chance on cuckoos, set about with some of the cuckoo chick feathers from fox kills I have found in the past weeks.

Being in the grip of a minor cuckoo obsession, I was delighted to get hold of a copy of Edgar P. Chance’s book The Truth About the Cuckoo in the post yesterday morning. This book is something like a standard text on the subject, and a constant source of reference for everything else I have read about cuckoos. I spotted it on eBay and managed to get hold of it without too much trouble, and I look forward to inhaling some of Chance’s material, complete with its somewhat dated but nonetheless groundbreaking photographs.

On the subject of cuckoos, I have noted a couple of rather distressing casualties on the hill over the past week or two in the form of dead chicks. “Dead chicks” is perhaps misleading and would be better pitched as “predated” chicks, and I found the remains of the second bird last night in the mouth of a recently cleaned out fox earth.

Both of the cuckoos had obviously been killed by foxes as the chewed feathers would suggest, and it makes me think of how vulnerable these fat little traitors are when poised in the heather waiting for the next gob-full of fraudulently acquired plunder. In my experience, they are easier to hear than see, and it is surely no wonder that they are being hammered by vigilant ground predators. I have included some of the feathers I have found from both cuckoos in the image above, and they are unquestionably pretty things, despite being somewhat tainted by the tragic overtones. It is sad to see that some of the quills had not even moulted through fully before the axe fell, and if only these two could have survived another week or two, what a life they might have had.

The eggs I found on the Chayne in April never hatched because the nest was raided, and I am starting to come to terms with what must be a major bottleneck for cuckoo numbers; the period of inordinate vulnerability which follows hatching but precedes fledging, when all they can do is squat and wheeze. Once on the wing, adult cuckoos are relatively bulletproof, and I was interested to read in Ian Wyllie’s book the theory that mature birds look like sparrowhawks in order to evade these predators.

To demonstrate the similarities between the two species, he provides an impressive photograph of a dead cuckoo next to a dead sparrowhawk. This image (below) is rather alarming to a modern audience, since it almost suggests that both were shot to make the picture,  but it drives its point home and also goes some way to prick to common theory that the resemblance between the two is designed to confuse pipits and warblers into deserting their nests so that the eggs can be layed. It is equally logical that cuckoos should have assumed the guise of sparrowhawks for their own protection, and despite having once seen a sparrowhawk chasing a cock cuckoo, I have never heard of one actually being killed, or found cuckoo feathers near any of the plucking posts on my beat.

Cuckoo and sparrowhawk for comparison, taken from Ian Wyllie's book The Cuckoo.
Cuckoo and sparrowhawk for comparison, taken from Ian Wyllie’s book The Cuckoo.

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