Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Cuckoo-style decision-making is a thing of wonder

On his way to Africa, Indy did something astonishing

A A A

Imagine this. You're piloting, solo, a light plane from Italy to Africa, over the Mediterranean, during the night, and when dawn comes up you still can't see the African coast which is nearly 100 miles away, and you check your fuel supply and realise you may not have enough left to make it… so what do you do?

Such was the dilemma faced 10 days ago by Indy, the cuckoo adopted this summer by The Independent, on his 5,000-mile migratory journey to his African wintering grounds; and what he did was astonishing.

To view graphic CLICK HERE

Ringed in Central Wales on 30 May and fitted with a lightweight satellite transmitter by scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology, as part of BTO research into the cuckoo's decline in Britain, Indy subsequently left for Africa via France, and in early July he reached the wooded valley of the River Po in northern Italy, where he spent the next three weeks feeding. He was taking on fuel to get him over the really testing bits of his journey, the crossing-in-one-go of the Mediterranean, and then the similar traverse of the Sahara. But he may not have taken on enough.

For when dawn broke on 23 July, Indy was Africa-bound over the sea, 200 miles out from Sicily and still nearly 100 miles from the Libyan coast, when he did something, as his satellite tag showed, which amazed the BTO scientists: he turned back.

High above the waves, about 5am BST, he did a 180-degree U-turn, and headed back the way he had come, eventually making landfall north of Rome, where he rested for a day; then he flew all the way back to his previous "pit-stop" in the Po valley, completing a round trip to nowhere of 1,700 miles. And he's still there, taking on fuel once again, because he's got to get to Africa: no food for cuckoos in a European winter.

To me as a non-scientist, Indy's U-turn, two-thirds of the way across the Med, looks like something scarcely believable: a rational choice, as if thought-processes were involved. He took a decision and suddenly said to himself: sod this, I'm going back.

The BTO's Dr Chris Hewson doesn't believe reason was involved. He thinks Indy sensed his strength failing, and about-turned in a survival response conditioned by millions of years of evolution. The astounding thing for Dr Hewson is that Indy then flew the 850 miles all the way back to the Po. "That was completely gobsmacking, to be honest," Dr Hewson said. "But it may be an evolutionary rule for these circumstances, such as 'go back to last good feeding place'. Even all that distance away, it may be a better survival strategy than looking for a new one. At any rate, we will know if it was the right decision, if he makes it back to Africa in the end."

Tough life, isn't it, for migratory birds? Fill up, Indy. Fill up till the dial says Full.

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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...