Cuckoo!

On 15 April I tweeted that I had heard the first cuckoo of the Plaxtol year. As each spring comes around, this moment always reminds me of a newspaper piece I found a few years ago, dating from 1904.

The short article tells how a flight of forty cuckoos came to rest in a small Plaxtol plantation, and all began calling at once at about four o’clock in the morning. The report concluded that these cuckoos had made our parish their first landfall, on the long flight from Africa, and would soon disperse throughout the country. There are two striking aspects to this. The first is the date of that event in 1904: 14 April. I have records going back seven years for the first cuckoo here: 7 April 2008; 13 April 2009; 17 April 2010; 8 April 2011; 16 April 2012; 26 April 2013 (my journal notes that we had experienced a ‘mini Ice Age’ of cold, wet weather earlier that month); 17 April 2014; and 15 April 2015. Within a reasonable margin for error, the date of his arrival is still very close to that in 1904, despite a century of climate change. But second, and perhaps most obvious, is the sharp and apparently irreversible decline in cuckoo numbers over the last 100+ years. Where once a man might hear forty birds, now he is lucky to hear one. Not for nothing did Michael McCarthy entitle his book on migratory birds (2009) ‘Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo.’  2009 was also the year of Steve Moss’s article on the decline in numbers of cuckoos and other birds. We must treasure hearing the cuckoo every time that we do, and never take it for granted. On that same day this year, I heard the first swallows overhead and the first chiffchaff in the wood. These recurrent events are comforting in a changing world. As Barbara Euphan Todd wrote in her terrific wartime novel, ‘Miss Ranskill Comes Home’ (Persephone Books):

Even if the swallows had seen untoward sights during their crossing, their arrow flights suggested no mechanised progress since Crecy.

© New Moons For Old, 2015.

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