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This summer I’ve been a little preoccupied by cuckoos. They’re not strictly a garden species, but it’s possible to listen to a cuckoo’s distinctive call from the garden if you live in a rural area. And, while we won’t get them visiting our bird feeders, we can do our bit to help them.
Like many people, I used to have mixed emotions when it came to cuckoos. My only childhood memory of them sums this up perfectly: I was walking through some country lanes with my granny, when she stopped me to listen to a cuckoo in the trees. What a beautiful sound, I thought. Then my granny told me that they lay eggs in other birds’ nests and the hatchling kicks out its adopted siblings while the parents continue to feed this monster, oblivious to the fact it’s not theirs. Cuckoos were swiftly dumped in the ‘magpie’ category of birds and not given a further thought.
Now I’m grown, I’ve got over the barbaric way cuckoos enter the world and have learned to love them (I’m more tolerant of magpies, too). Each summer I invite myself to stay with my friend in Kent, and we sit in her garden and listen to the cuckoos. But this year we didn’t hear any.
The number of cuckoos in the UK has fallen by 65% over the past 30 years. No-one really knows why, but British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) research suggests it could be related to the changing nesting behaviour of its hosts, plus a decline of available food (caterpillars). Cuckoos usually lay their eggs in the nests of dunnocks, meadow pipits, pied wagtails and reed warblers. Of these four species, only the meadow pipit is in decline, but the other three are nesting up to six days earlier than they were previously. Could this affect cuckoos’ success rates in usurping other nests?
This year, the BTO is undertaking a fascinating project to find out what happens to cuckoos when they leave the UK, to see if that could shed any light on their decline. We know they go to Africa, but little is know about how they get there and what they get up to once they have arrived. Researchers have tagged five males – Lyster, Clement, Martin, Casper and Chris – and are blogging the results of these cuckoos’ migratory patterns. I’m hooked. Satellite maps reveal where each one is and which route it took to get there. Some of them are settled and others are continually on the move. I hope the BTO is able to keep an eye of all five of them over winter and track their return journeys to the UK in spring.
In the meantime, we gardeners can take a few steps to ensure this autumn’s hibernating butterflies, moths, caterpillars and chrysalises don’t end up on the compost heap. Now autumn is on its way, many of us will be thinking of tidying our gardens, composting spent perennials and making leaf mulch.
Remember that caterpillars overwinter in leaf piles and plant debris, so if you can save these jobs for spring, you’ll probably help to increase numbers of these insects in your garden. They’ll be more of them about to breed next spring and summer, so – theoretically at least – more food for their predators, including cuckoos.
After a lovely summer of weekends in Dorset, Kent and Suffolk without hearing a single cuckoo, I finally heard one while walking in the Yorkshire Dales. I thought I’d missed the boat this year, that I’d have to wait until next year before I heard one. But there it was, in the trees, making its distinctive mating call. I know it’s pathetic, but I was so happy I cried.
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