Cuckoo Chicks

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A close encounter

The new house continues to reveal pleasant surprises as the seasons revolve. Having enjoyed a deafening din of cuckoos throughout May, I had the distinct feeling that eggs and chicks must be somewhere in the vicinity. Swamped with work and tied down with the mechanics of moving house, I failed to spend much time in reconnaissance with the cuckoos, but heard the start of an obvious wailing in the undergrowth about two weeks ago. This noise grew ever louder until I looked up on Saturday afternoon and found a plump cuckoo chick perched on the dyke a few yards away.

Obligingly, the fat little bird sat and waited for me to run to the house and find my camera (which had been dismantled and was lying in several pieces across three rooms), then allowed me to approach quite closely to permit several photographs. I am no great photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but even I could hardly fail with this subject matter – I was shooting fish in a barrel. It was only after an hour of watching and photographing that I realised how noisy the little bird had become. I turned around and saw a second youngster perched fifty yards away on a thorn tree. Two youngsters in a three acre field!

Despite my best efforts, I struggled to take a photograph of them together, which I imagined would be quite a coup. As it was, they were not drawn to one another in any sense, and when they did move a little closer together, the effect seemed to confuse both sets of parents. The cuckoos stood to gain nothing from joining forces, so I had to settle for a distant shot of them both in a blackthorn bush which has nothing to commend it aesthetically and serves simply to show that there were indeed two individuals.

All the while, both sets of meadow pipit parents laboured to feed the youngsters. They relayed in a constant procession of grasshoppers and caterpillars, placing each one directly into the cuckoos’ undeserving throats. I don’t think I’ve ever seen cuckoos parasitise any except meadow pipits, and I’m always slightly disappointed to read books and research based entirely on reed warblers – the dynamic between cuckoo and pipit is under-researched and hugely under-represented in the media. The national picture of cuckoo decline is generally quite hazy and headlines tend towards the glum. We have lots of data relating to how birds have declined near centres of human population but I think that there are far more of these birds in the hills than many people believe. Perhaps the gloomy slant is more a product of incomplete surveys. In the same way, skylarks are sometimes said to be on the verge of national extinction when I would rate them some of the most common hill and moorland birds at this time of year in Galloway.

Having so often found the remains of cuckoo chicks killed by foxes, it has been revealing to see just how vulnerable these little birds are. Trusting, idle and consumed with greed, they allow me to approach to within ten or fifteen feet without bothering to move away. Their constant screaming calls must be a magnet for a whole suite of ground predators, and they would be easily caught by anything with a mind to do so. Fortunately, most of their silliness takes place ten feet up in a canopy of thorn scrub – dotted around individually and able to find some security in the trees, young cuckoos must be far more resilient to foxes or badgers than black grouse or curlews.

It has also been interesting to see that while adult cuckoos are famously similar in appearance to sparrowhawks, youngsters have refined this imitation to a point of near perfection. The close-up photograph below is easy to identify, but at twenty or thirty yards, their dark heads and white breasts are extremely similar to a small hawk. One of the two youngsters even has flecks of white feather at the nape of its neck – a perfect facsimile of many sparrowhawks. This is sensible camouflage, as they would make an obvious meal for a quick ambush predator along the edge of the wood. The swallows were similarly fooled by the disguise, and they periodically came screaming out of the yard to bombard one of the cuckoos. It responded in kind, gaping open a blazing orange mouth in protest.

Even as I type this, I can hear them both droning away in the field. Judging by previous years, I feel that these two youngsters are better developed than other cuckoos I have found at this time of year. My notes tell me of chicks still lingering in the nest in the first week in July, and I spotted a comparable cuckoo chick on the 17th July last year, (although this one had the added glow of being a “rufous” cuckoo – a chestnut brown bird, very like a kestrel).

It will be interesting to see how these birds fare over the next week or two, and as always, the stacks of notes continue to mount up…

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As I crept up to take this picture, he was happily playing with a piece of rabbit shit

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