Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Cuckoo miracle - from Norfolk to Congo and back

Giving names to Clement and the other four birds was a masterstroke

A A A

We knew in theory that it happened, of course, that cuckoos, like most of the 50 or so British bird species which are summer migrants coming here to breed in the warmer months, returned to Africa to spend the winter. But watching it happen for the first time has been something again. To follow the journeys of the five cuckoos fitted with satellite transmitters by the British Trust for Ornithology in Norfolk last summer, which have now come full circle with the successful return this week of two of the birds, has been nothing short of wondrous.

It's the detailed unfolding of these 10,000-mile odysseys, through some of the most starkly differing landscapes on the planet, which has been so captivating. Since leaving placid Norfolk, and the cabin-cruiser docility of the Broads, they have plunged into extremes: they have crossed the world's biggest desert, in the Sahara, and the world's densest rainforests, in West Africa. They have flown around the Atlas mountains, and the western Congolian swamp forests (legendary home of the mokele-mbembe, Africa's version of the Loch Ness Monster). They have seen not only France and Italy and Spain, and the Mediterranean, they have seen Niger and the Central African Republic and Ghana and Nigeria and Togo. They may well have seen Paris; they may well have seen Timbuktu.

This sense of wild creatures wandering at will through the world, in a way mere humans never could, was caught perfectly by Ted Hughes 30 years ago, in a poem called "October Salmon", where Hughes looks at a dead salmon which has come home to spawn and die in its Devon river after its journey to the seas off Greenland."So briefly, he roamed the gallery of marvels," Hughes writes, and indeed, the five BTO cuckoos roamed their own gallery of marvels, with the remarkable advantage, to us, that we could follow them doing so.

For example, last July it was possible, on Google Maps, to see precisely where cuckoo Clement was resting before crossing the Sahara southwards – on the very last vegetated slope of the Atlas in Algeria, before the desert began.

Giving names to Clement and the other four birds was a masterstroke by the BTO – I mean, would you be so interested in the fate of Cuckoo xy4768? As it was, Clement was the first cuckoo to fall by the wayside: he flew to Africa via Spain before wintering in the Congo, but having started his return north, he met his end in Cameroon in early February. Although all five made it to their wintering grounds, one more bird came unstuck on the way back – cuckoo Martin, who had flown to Africa via Italy. Martin was the first bird to reach Europe again, but a month ago he too met his end, again revealed by the satellite tag, somewhere near Lorca in southern Spain – possibly from being caught in a violent hailstorm.

Of the remaining three birds, one, cuckoo Kasper, is still keeping us waiting, being last heard of three weeks ago in northern Algeria. Fingers crossed. But the other two, Lyster and Chris, triumphantly made it to Britain at the start of the week, with Lyster now back in the Broads, and Chris on his way there, in Essex.

Two, and possibly three out of five, is more or less what the BTO was hoping for. These monitored journeys have provided a huge amount of new information about one of Britain's best-loved but most rapidly declining birds.

But besides the exhilaration at the scientific success, all those involved feel something more – we might say a sense of wonder at witnessing the completion of such amazing journeys. Two BTO staffers, Phil Atkinson and Paul Stancliffe, felt it on Monday when they managed to track Lyster down in the Broads, and actually caught sight of him. "It was just incredible," Paul Stancliffe said. "Fantastically exciting. Hard to describe the feeling. Just elation."

Ted Hughes knew how to describe it though, in another poem, this one about the return of swifts, fellow summer migrants from Africa: two simple words and an exclamation mark capturing his joy at the reappearance of these signifiers of summer: They're back!

Magic sound of A to F sharp

If you're wondering why people make such a fuss about the cuckoo's two-note call, you may be interested in the fact that it is the most musical sound in all of the natural world. It is a perfect musical interval – a descending minor third. Thus, at its simplest, in the key of C Major, cuck-oo! is G to E. The birds, however, don't call in C. They call in the key of D. So when you hear cuck-oo! in the countryside, you're hearing A to F sharp. Just thought you might like to know.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/mjpmccarthy

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam