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The Independent Chick

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Killing a caterpillar like a professional.

At the risk of labouring the subject of cuckoos, it’s hard to resist a further post to acknowledge the fact that they are slowly becoming independent of their foster parents. I noticed one youngster attempting to feed itself yesterday afternoon for the first time, dropping down off the telephone wire to bounce along the track in pursuit of a large black caterpillar. It’s always impressive to observe an instinct kicking in, and while this youngster will never have seen an grown-up cuckoo deal with a caterpillar, it consumed the poor critter with exactly the same “flick and wipe” of a foraging adult in May. A pipit returned with a beak full of grub a few moments later and the chick returned to the wire to beg noisily, but the subtle deviation from wholesale dependence had been noted.

These birds can be seen from my office window in almost every hour of daylight. I can hardly miss them, so perhaps it’s no wonder that I should be preoccupied with them. As they develop some independence, I’m also interested to see them gradually learning the value of caution. The sparrowhawks are now an almost daily visitor to the yard, where they hope to ambush young swallows and tear through the flocks of linnets and redpolls in the long grass. The cuckoo chicks would be easy pickings, but the imitative camouflage (mentioned in a previous post) seems to serve them well. They no longer allow me to approach within thirty yards, and that distance seems to extend by another few feet every day. When they fly away, they do so with a confusing flare of feathers and rush off in an erratic zig-zag, changing direction sporadically as if subject to some kind of mental tic. They make for an odd spectacle, so perhaps it’s no surprise that all three should have progressed as far as they have.

At the same time, their comfort zone is gradually growing. When I first discovered them, each bird was confined to three or four trees in perhaps a two acre patch. Now when they leave their perches and move around, they travel five or six hundred yards at a time. I wonder when they will feel the pull of migration and leave the farm altogether. In the meantime, the heights of summer rage on to the sound of grasshoppers and young sand martins, and a blaze of trefoils, vetch and meadowsweet.

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Putting him in context – a begging cuckoo against a galloway backdrop
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