Not so cuckoo after all: birds that blog their flight paths

The migration routes of some endangered visitors are being laid bare on the web (including the one that's been left behind in Norfolk)

A A A

They could be the members of a boy band – Clement, Martin, Lyster, Kasper and Chris. But they're cuckoos, and together they're about to reveal the last secret of one of our most mysterious birds: where they go in the winter.

Click here for a map of the cuckoo's journeys (58k)

It took centuries to solve previous cuckoo mysteries, such as how they got their eggs into other birds' nests, and how the cuckoo chick survived alone. Yet the final enigma, of where they spend their time when summer is over, is likely to be solved in the next few months – thanks to satellite tracking technology.

It will be done through Clement and his colleagues, five young male cuckoos caught in East Anglia this summer by researchers from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and fitted with ultra-lightweight satellite "tags" which can record their movements accurately (although they transmit intermittently).

The work is vital, because, like several of our other summer visitors from Africa, the cuckoo is tumbling in numbers, and the latest, unpublished BTO research shows that cuckoos in Britain – whose two-note "cu-cu!" call is one of our best-loved springtime sounds – declined by 65 per cent between 1984 and 2009. The birds may be vanishing because of problems here, such as the disappearance of the moth caterpillars which are their principal food. But it is equally possible that they are running into trouble on their wintering grounds in Africa, or on the various "staging posts" they use on their 3,000-mile migratory journeys.

"Cuckoos are now declining rapidly and if anything, the decline is accelerating," said Dr Chris Hewson, who is charge of the BTO project. "We don't know why, but they are away from Britain for nine months of the year, so there is the possibility that it is something happening – perhaps habitat loss – on either their staging sites or their wintering sites, which we know very little about. If we don't find out soon, it may be too late to take action to help them."

Ringing, which has revealed the journeys of many migrant birds over the past century, has been of little help with cuckoos. Only one cuckoo ringed in Britain has ever been recovered from Africa – a bird ringed as a chick in a pied wagtail's nest in June 1928 at Eton in Berkshire, and found dead in January 1930 in Cameroon.

The birds' ultimate destination is presumed to be West Africa, and they are thought to head in a south-easterly direction, flying the length of Italy and perhaps moving into Africa down the Nile Valley.

We don't know; but we soon will. For Clement and his colleagues have begun revealing details of their journeys, the most surprising revelation being that four of them have already left – a month or even more before they were expected to do so.

Clement himself led the way, on 3 June, a date which has amazed researchers, who have always thought of cuckoo return migration as beginning in July. He is now in southern France. He has been followed by Kasper, Chris and Martin; to date, Lyster remains in Norfolk.

We will report on the cuckoos' ultimate destination, but in the meantime they each have their own blog and their progress can be followed at www.bto.org/science/migration/ tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking.

Caught and fitted with his satellite tag at Martham in the Norfolk Broads on 25 May. As of yesterday, still in Norfolk. Hard to tear himself away?

Caught at the BTO's Nunnery Lakes reserve at Thetford in Norfolk on 19 May. Left Britain 3 June. Now near the town of Collobrières, southern France.

Caught at Martham on 25 May. Left Britain on 12 June, landing in Europe at Antwerp docks. Has flown the length of France. Now near Bologna, Italy.

Caught at Great Yarmouth on 19 May. Left Britain about 27 June. Flew through central France, now near Alessandria in Piedmont, Italy.

Caught at Santon Downham, Norfolk on1 June. Left Britain about 16 June. Last heard of north of Maastricht, Netherlands. Only sporadic contact.

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

Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager - Software & Services

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Exhibition Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding B2B exhibition and...

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat