Letter from a Cuckoo
Hello, everyone, where are we today? Oh, yes, Europe. If it's springtime it must be Europe…When you seem to spend half the year migrating, or getting ready to migrate, you sometimes don't remember straight off where you are. A week or so ago I was in Africa and now here I am, with everyone saying, ‘Gosh, do you hear the cuckoo, the cuckoo's arrived! What a delightful song!’ As if I'm singing to say, ‘Yoo hoo, I'm here!’ It never occurs to them that I might be singing the equivalent of - 'God, I am so tired after flying from Africa I could sleep for two weeks!' Or that as soon as I've arrived, dog-tired, I've immediately got to start carving out a bit of territory for breeding.
Everyone - I'm talking about humans now - everyone seems to think that migrating is a fun thing, a bit like tourism. They seem to think that as soon as the weather gets a bit hot and sticky, we all say, ‘Let's take a summer break in Europe!’ Let's book a charter flight to dear old Britain!’
Well, that may be the way human beings operate, and good luck to you, but it's not the way birds operate. Of course, you can't tell with humans. Did you know that once upon a time the British went to the south of France in the winter because it was too cold back home? Nowadays they go to the south of France in the summer, just when the weather is at its best in Britain. And where do they go in winter? To the top of mountains in Switzerland, so they can slide to the bottom! It's crazy. Human migration instincts are crazy. Once they used to seek the warmth in winter, now they seek the cold.
Maybe that's why you acquired the British Empire. So that at any given time there would be any kind of climate you wanted on tap. Maybe that's why so many bits of the Empire were sunny places near the Equator. So different from Manchester and Birmingham. Yes, I know you got Canada as well, dear, but that wasn't because you wanted it - it was only because nobody else wanted it, and the Americans already had the best bits of that continent… Heavens above, I'm prattling on like a pigeon, what was I telling you about ?
Oh, yes, the real reason we come from Africa at that time is that food is drying up, simple as that. The supply of insects just vanishes. Can't get insects for love nor money. Queues of cuckoos forming... ‘Seen any insects? No, they're right out. Say there won't be any more for months. Personally, I blame the government, etc etc ‘ and then someone says, ‘Well, I suppose we ought to get on over to Europe to get some’, and we all go silent with horror at the thought of that long journey, especially passing over Italy and France where they shoot at anything, you've no idea, and then some brave soul says, ‘Oh, come on, let's get it over with’. And pretty soon the sky is dark with cuckoos, and as soon as we get here and flop down absolutely exhausted you hear people saying: ‘The cuckoo is here! I've heard the first cuckoo! Good weather is on its way! It's spring ...’ and on and on they go.
Well, goodness, it's nice to make people happy and all that, but really, if they think that the British spring is nice weather they should go and have a look at Africa.... Of course, the funny thing is that it works the other way round, because when we get back to Africa at the end of the British so-called summer, excuse me while I smile, as soon as we get back to Africa, people hear the cuckoos arriving and say, ‘Hello, the summer is over - the cuckoos are back! Dear Sir, they write to the editor of the Nairobi Times, I have just heard the first cuckoo of autumn…!’ People are funny, aren't they? I'll say they are.
Well, I always enjoy the first arrival in dear old dowdy little old-fashioned Britain, and I'll tell you why, it's because, just for a few days, we are popular. People actually like to hear the first cuckoo of spring. It really cheers them up. Then, after that, it's all forgotten and we get a bad press again. Yes, the rest of the year, we cuckoos are thought of as the villains of the bird world. Did you know that "cuckoo" is a slang word for "mad" ? Well, it is. That's absolutely cuckoo, you hear people say. Nothing very politically correct about that, is there? Not allowed to say "funny farm" or "loony bin" any more, but, oh yes, it's all right to say "cuckoo". And then there's all the stuff about us laying our eggs in other birds' nests...
Yes, we do.
Of course we do.
No cuckoo has ever sought to deny the rumours.
Yes, it is true that we cuckoos do lay our eggs in other birds' nests.
Yes, it is also true that we tip other eggs out to make room.
Yes, it is also true that we lay different coloured eggs round the world to camouflage them as eggs of the host nest, depending on what the local egg colour fashion is.
I plead guilty to all that.
But I would also plead mitigating circumstances.
The mitigating circumstances are as follows: it is not our fault. It is Mother Nature's fault, the old cow.
Do I sound a bit bitter?
Well, that's because I am a bit bitter.
Just think about it for a moment.
To start with, all cuckoos are orphans. All of us! Or, at least, foster-children, which comes to the same thing. We never know our parents. No cuckoo ever gets to meet either of its parents. Cuckoos are 100% abandoned at birth. Nobody could blame us if we all turned into psychopaths or bitter twisted birds or chronic over-eaters because we were abandoned by mummy and daddy before we were even born....
Of course, we don't know that to begin with. We grow up in a tiny nest belonging to some pipit or warbler or something, and for a while we may even think we are a pipit or warbler or something.
Then one day we say: ‘Hold on. If I am a pipit or a warbler, why am I bigger than my parents already and I am still only a baby?
And why isn't there enough room in the nest for me?
And shall I tip some of my brothers and sisters out to make room, even though that will probably kill them?
And why don’t I even look like a pipit?
And if I am not a pipit, what the hell am I?’
These are hard questions for a baby bird to have to ask itself.
And then in its very first summer, the cuckoo suddenly finds itself in a land growing cold, without insects, and it feels this enormous instinct to fly to Africa. And it doesn't even know where Africa is, or how it will know when it gets there.
That's what I mean when I say that Mother Nature has played the cuckoo a dirty trick. Believe me, we'd like to stay in Africa all the year round. But we can't find the right birds' nests to lay our eggs in, and we run out of insects, so we have to migrate. Sure as eggs is eggs.
Which is all we ever see. Eggs, I mean. I have one fleeting glimpse of my offspring as an egg, and that's it. If anyone says to me, what did your children look like? I have to say: small and oval and shiny. That's all I know. What colour were your children? Well, it depended on where we laid them...
Now, that's another thing. We may be victims, but we are smart victims. We camouflage our eggs to blend in with our children's host's eggs. Don't ask me how it works, but it does. We do lots of smart things, like imitate hawks to lure the foster-mother away from the nest, and lay an egg so fast that nobody knows we've been in and out… Maybe the one smart thing we don't do is stand up to Mother Nature.
I mean, wouldn't it be great if we all turned round and said: ‘No more eggs!’
Call Mother Nature's bluff.
Because Mother Nature is saying the whole time that if we don't have eggs, we will be doomed.
Mother Nature is saying, ‘Listen to me! Mother Nature calling! If you don't have babies, the cuckoo will die out!’
And I say back to Mother Nature, ‘Thank you, Mother Nature, Nice of you to get in touch, and I hear you, Mother Nature, I hear what you are saying, I don't much like what you are saying, because this egg-bearing business is a great waste of time, but I hear you. Now you hear me, Mother Nature. It's not so much the having of eggs I hate - it's all the hatching and feeding and teaching to fly and catching insects to put in their big hungry mouths - I couldn't stand that! So if I can think of a way of just having the eggs and getting someone else to do all the work, would that be all right, Mother Nature?’
And Mother Nature says, ‘Chance would be a fine thing, sweetie, but if you can fix it, then go ahead!’
And I do and I have, as you probably know by now. Come hatching time I keep an eye open for any birds in my neighbourhood, preferably pipits and warblers, don't ask me why, that are producing eggs and when their back is turned I zip in and I lay an egg - in ten seconds, got it down to a fine art - and I'm off again. That's it! Bang! My motherhood has lasted all of ten seconds! Which is smart in its own way.
Of course, you have to be careful when you enter a nest on the very edge of your territory, because it may be overlapping with someone else's territory, some other cuckoo, I mean, and it is not totally unknown for two cuckoos to lay eggs in the same nest. Which is pushing it.
And last year, you won't believe this, but I was laying an egg in some nest on the edge of my territory, ten second countdown, nine, eight, seven, six - when suddenly this other cuckoo comes blasting in the nest and tries to lay an egg on top of me!
‘Excuse me!’ I said, ‘but I believe I was here first. If you don't mind!’
‘All right,’ she said, ‘but get a move on. I'll wait outside for ten seconds, and if you haven't laid by then, I'm coming straight in! .
You've got to laugh, haven't you?
Yes, all right. I know what you're going to say. You're going to say, ‘But you're missing out on all the wonderful moments of motherhood ! You don't even get to see your child! There's no bonding, no moments to look back on, no browsing through the photograph album later on…! You're not fulfilled as a mother!’
That's what you're going to say, am I right? Now, here's what I'm going to say. ‘Stuff and nonsense! Absolute balderdash!’ It is one of the signs of high intelligence in any branch of nature that the mother has as little to do with the offspring as possible. Look at human beings. What do they do, if they get the money and the chance and the privilege to do so? They send their children away to school! They purchase nannies! They get the best governesses that money can buy! If you look at the history of the aristocracy, you will find that the highest in the land have so little to do with their children, they would be hard pushed to recognise them.
All right. So that doesn't betoken intelligence. Just money and position. And privilege. But even so.
Bully for the aristocratic mum, I say. I know how she feels. And she feels great! She doesn't go round moping all day, and nor do I. If the truth be known, she probably feels infinitely superior to all those full-time mums who are slaving over a hot crèche all day long, and so do I, as I think I have been suggesting. After all, if we cuckoos got pangs of guilt, and child-deprivation, and feelings of offspring-loss, what would we do? I tell you what we'd do. We'd zip back now and again to peer in the nest to have a look and see how our little baby is getting on. Just a peep, like mothers having a look at their adopted children. But do we? Do you ever see mother cuckoos with hankies pressed to their streaming beaks gazing adoringly in at some thrush's nest?
No, you don't.
Because the cuckoo is the first animal of any species to have had the maternal instinct successfully rechannelled.
If that's not progress and a sign of advanced thinking, tell me what is.
Parents these days go on and on about babies who grow up and refuse to leave home, yes, they do, I've heard them, you can't get away from it, half the birdsong in the average garden is not territorial or gladiatorial, it's moaning about the children. You'd be amazed if you could understand birdsong: ‘My fledglings are getting worse and worse - they won't even eat worms now - it's got to be moths - bring us more moths! Honestly, I sometimes wonder why we bother? ‘
And the answer is that you don't have to bother if you are as smart as a cuckoo. That's all it takes. Smartness. And a re-routed maternal instinct.
Another thing. If we had a maternal instinct, we'd hang around to make sure that little baby cuckoo got back safely to Africa.
But do we?
Do we gather on the telegraph wires like the swallows?
No, we don't.
Mother is off like a flash at the first sign of autumn weather.
Little baby cuckoo follows by himself.
Yes, that little baby cuckoo, barely three months old, flies thousands of miles to Africa all by himself without any training whatsoever, and human beings say that it is quite fantastic how it does it.
How do the parent cuckoos know that the kid is going to make it?
Because we all did when we were kids, that's why.
So the odds are that they will.
Don't forget that that young cuckoo has been fighting for its survival all its life, in the foster nest.
It's been pushing its foster-siblings one by one over the edge.
It's been smiling nicely at its foster-mother.
It has even discovered - and I think that only cuckoos have ever discovered this - it has even discovered that if you sit on a post or a tree with your beak open, pretending to be starving, then any passing parent bird with a worm or other morsel will pop it in your mouth, even though it has never seen you before in its life!
Smart or what?
Incidentally, I almost said just now that you never see gangs of cuckoos sitting on telegraph wires like those flashy customers, the swallows.
The fact is that even if you did, you would never recognise us. People know what cuckoos sound like, but very few know what we look like. We're too intelligent to let on what we look like. Keep a low profile, that's us.
So there you have the picture.
Teenage cuckoos who don't have the usual agonies about leaving home, because they never lived at home in the first place.
Grown-up cuckoos who don't waste time on child-rearing, because someone else is doing that, and who have all the time in the world to…
To do what?
Not a lot, frankly.
Except eat insects non-stop and fly to Africa and back once a year and lay an egg once in a while and grumble about Mother Nature.
Doesn't sound much, does it?
So why am I always exhausted?
I was talking to this cuckoo the other day, who said to me: ‘You know, in many ways we are green birds.’
I didn't know what she was talking about.
‘Speak for yourself, love,’ I said. ‘I'm a sort of grey colour, and not ashamed of it.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I mean green, as in ecology. We don't use up extra nesting places and we don't use up the earth's store of nesting materials, because we recycle what's there already. Laying eggs in someone else's nest is very advanced thinking.’
‘Look, love,’ I said, ‘I don't mind going over and laying in someone else's nest. It's having to go over and lay in someone else's continent that gets me down.’
‘You’re right,’ she said.
How we laughed.
Well, you've got to laugh if you're a cuckoo.
And if Mother Nature is against you.
You need all the laughs you can get.
Otherwise you’d go cuckoo.
Excuse my language.
Commissioned by BBC Natural History Unit
Transmitted 24th June 1995, Radio 4
Read by Julia MacKenzie