Scottish Wildlife: The amazing Cuckoo
Posted on May 08, 2015 by Jonathan Willet
You have no doubt heard a Cuckoo call or certainly would recognise its call.
But did you know only the male bird Cuckoo’d? Wildlife expert and wilderness guide, Jonathan Willet gives an overview of this fantastic member of Scotland’s birdlife in this article, Scottish Wildlife: The amazing Cuckoo.
Where does the Cuckoo name come from?
This well-known, but rarely-seen bird, is about the size of a Collared Dove and looks a bit like a Sparrowhawk, more of which later. Its species name, Cuculus canorus means the melodious Cuckoo, which seems very apt to anyone who has heard their iconic song. All over Europe this birds name is imitative of its call. But why in Scots is it known as the Gowk? Well, it is all to do with the Vikings, who brought that name over. But again it is a call of the Cuckoo, just not a well-known one. One other call, which sounds like a “water-bubbling chuckle” is made by the female when a male is close by.
Where do they make their home?
Since Aristotle wrote about it, we have known that the Cuckoo does not build its own nest and lays its eggs in the nest of small birds, but what birds? In the UK about 80% of the Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nest of Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks or Reed Warblers. In Scotland mainly Meadow Pipits will be targeted.
How do they do it?
The Cuckoos time their arrival just as most birds are starting to nest build and lay. The female perches on a vantage point and looks for nesting activity, to get a closer look she cruises about looking like a Sparrowhawk seeing where the nests are. Looking like a raptor means that the small birds fly away from her so she can have a close look at nests and if they are at the right stage lay an egg in them. The female will take one of the eggs already there and eat it, replacing it with her own whose pattern matches that of the host.
The Cuckoo’s egg has been inside the female about a day longer than most other birds, giving the embryo a head start. Usually it hatches first and then proceeds to push the other eggs out of the nest by getting underneath the egg and using a hollow between its shoulders and also its wings to balance the egg and then with a leg thrust, push it out. If chicks have already hatched they get the same treatment! By the time of fledging tiny Meadow Pipits will be feeding a huge Cuckoo, hence getting rid of the competition. The parent birds imprint on the chick and treat it like their own. A few summers ago I saw several Meadow Pipits mobbing a Cuckoo on a phone wire and the parents feeding it and then occasionally mobbing it and generally looking confused.
Where do they come from?
The most amazing thing about the Cuckoo is not that it mainly eats hairy caterpillars that other birds won’t touch but its incredible migration journey to central Africa. Juvenile birds will make a southward journey to Africa with no guide (all the adult birds left in late June or July) and know pretty much exactly where to go. It is still a mystery as to how this is done. The British Trust for Ornithology has been tracking Cuckoos since 2011 and is finding out more every year see http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking .
With the Cuckoo Flower in bloom and the Cuckoos’ Shoes (Bluebells) about to bloom and the Cuckoo Spit almost here, keep your ears open for the call.
Have you heard one yet?
Check out another of our Scottish bird articles: How to Spot the White-Tailed Sea Eagle
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