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Have you heard the cuckoo call?

Friday 23 May 2008

Countryside commentator John Sheard, discussing the latest festival in the Yorkshire Dales, ponders on the missing sound on the summer cuckoo and concludes that he must be going deaf

A NEW festival is being celebrated this Bank Holiday weekend in the Yorkshire Dales: the good folk of that lovely village Clapham are getting together to pay homage to the cuckoo, simultaneously one of the most loved and most hated birds to visit out shores.

Cuckoo: doing OK
Photo: Woodland Trust

Its unique call is the very harbinger of summer. But its breeding habits, which include laying up to 25 eggs per season in other birds’ nests, cause widespread disgust because a) they put the duped parents to untold stress and b) the cuckoo infant routinely pushes the rightful offspring out of the nest to their deaths.

This, then, is the foreign visitor that country folk love to hate and which the Clapham festival has chosen as the emblem of its bank holiday festival to compete with similar celebrations in other parts of the Dales like the Skipton waterways blow-out and the celebrated Kettlewell Scarecrows.

I am all in favour of such get-togethers – they bring in some important trade but more importantly are a welcome knees-up for the locals – but what worries me about the Clapham Cuckoo Festival is the comparative absence of the guest-of-honour.

For I most certainly have not heard a cuckoo this year – and I spend many hours every day outdoors. And, quite frankly, I can’t remember when I Iast heard that crazy call (“Daft as a cuckoo” was a regular insult when I was a lad, back in the days before four-letter words became common street currency).

Now this was the signal for me to start researching one of those doom-and-gloom environmental stories which have become all too familiar in recent decades. The cuckoo is doomed would be the headline, I assumed, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds would be doing its right and proper duty in calling for special measures to preserve this wonderfully hateful bird.

Well, I was wrong. Although the cuckoo is on the RSPB’s “amber” list – which means its numbers are in “moderate decline” - it is much less threatened as a species than such once-common birds as the humble house sparrow or the starling. And it is estimated that there are between 9,600 and 20,000 breeding pairs in the UK, which for a relatively solitary species seems pretty healthy.

I am glad that the cuckoo is OK...and I hope the good folk of Clapham enjoy its

So why haven’t I heard one this summer – or for several summers before, as far as I can recall. Sad to report, I have never been one to scan the letters page of The Times to catch the report of the first cuckoo of summer: I get my wildlife info on the hoof, rather than read about it in the newspapers.

The RSPB is reassuring about this too. It says that although the cuckoo is widespread throughout the UK – literally from Land’s End to John o’ Groats – it is particularly common in the South and Midlands. And their favourite nests to plunder belong to specifies that are not exactly common here in the Dales like the reed warbler, more at home on the Norfolk Broads.

So it is only the hardy ones which stray this far north and perhaps they are the strong and silent type, rather like the Tykes themselves. Or there is the possibility that I could be going deaf, of course. Either way, I am glad that the cuckoo is OK, despite its vile habits, and I hope the good folk of Clapham enjoy its festival.

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