It's spintime, and cuckoos are all around

PERHAPS I should write to the Times. The other day, as we lay- in later than usual (thank goodness for half-term) both my wife and I thought we heard a cuckoo.

It seems pretty unlikely: the notoriously promiscuous harbinger of spring isn't due to tip up in South-east England from the African rainforests until mid-April. Yet almost anything seems possible after the warmest- ever February weekend.

Three years ago, a Mr Robert Campbell of Southampton claimed to have heard the bird on 6 February. But then, he was 79. Again, the British Trust for Ornithology predicted only last August that, with global warming, "we will soon be hearing the first cuckoo of winter, rather than spring".

So I rang the Trust. "I don't know of a cuckoo arriving yet," said Graham Appleton, who took the call, "but there is no reason why there shouldn't have been one, given the silly spring we are having."

Alas, Chris Mead, the Trust's resident guru, then rang to dash my hopes of glory. "I don't believe in your cuckoo," he said, with withering certainty. "Somebody was probably playing a CD. And there's a very good Japanese toy that sounds just like one."

I don't believe anyone in our rural neck of the woods would bestir themselves early in the morning to excite a gullible hack with an oriental contraption. But my confidence is crumbling all the same. Apparently starlings often mimic the birds. And even as I wrote this paragraph, my wife said she had heard a wood pigeon "with a very cuckoo- like note". Perhaps that Times letter should wait.

o CUCKOO or no, strange things have been happening. A blackbird nested in a Christmas tree in Norwich before Twelfth Night, and house martins have already turned up in Eastbourne (they are normally not due until April).

"There's also been a lot of butterfly and bumblebee activity," adds Mr Mead, who says he has never known a winter like this. Spring really does seem to be coming earlier. Last year, scientists at Nasa and Boston University concluded, after analysing satellite photos, that it begins a week sooner than 20 years ago.

This is reviving the art of phenology, the study of the seasons by observing animals and plants; which is good news for Tim Sparks of the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology, who has 178 years of records compiled by a Norfolk family over more than two centuries.

Back in 1736, Robert Marsham began monitoring 27 different signs of spring, from the flowering of the first snowdrop to the first frog's croak, from the call of the cuckoo to the oak coming into leaf. Each year he and his descendants set up a chart in the hall and the first member of the household to spot one of the signs had to record it.

The weather was colder then (Robert Marsham's records list the number of successive nights the contents of his chamberpot froze under his bed) and working out how nature responded as the climate warmed up is giving Dr Sparks an idea of what we can expect in future.

He is now continuing the research by setting up a website. So if you find a blackbird nesting in your Christmas tree - or even think you hear a cuckoo in February, you can just log on to http://www. nmw. ac.uk/ite/phenology.

o TALKING of strange occurrences, a funny thing happened to a story on the way to the front page last week. We had come across four alarming clauses in a Bill working its way through Parliament, which would have enabled John Prescott to pick out any areas of the country (including in national parks or the Green Belt) for development without going through democratic planning controls.

I happened to be talking to the Deputy Prime Minister about other things and mentioned this. Consternation. My phone started ringing off the hook with officials and ministers first defending the clauses and then saying they were being reconsidered. Finally I got a hint that they would be dropped - and so they were last Tuesday, apparently an unprecedented occurrence.

Now, many weightier people than I had already protested, and so the clauses may well have been on the way out anyway. But it made me wonder whether the doctors are, in fact, quite easily put into a spin. Then again, maybe I'm just going cuckoo.

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