The mother of all freeloaders

She dumps her young on others, eats their eggs, and disappears. The female cuckoo has remarkable habits, writes Helen Lewis

The business of procreation is demanding and downright dangerous for birds. While they're raising young they have little time to find food for themselves, and nest sitting, whether at ground level or in the branches of a tree, is far more life threatening than living on the wing.

No wonder the female European cuckoo, cuculus canorus, has devised a way of avoiding such worries. As a nest parasite, she shirks the responsibility of parenthood altogether by duping birds like robins, meadow pipits, warblers and dunnocks to look after her eggs and her young. Meanwhile her mate's distinctive call (quite unlike her bubbling chuckle) has become the familiar spring herald.

The habits of this bird may appear bizarre, but the resulting myth and folklore seem even stranger. Two centuries ago, the disappearance of the cuckoo in late summer led to a popular belief that the bird actually turned into a sparrow hawk. Several types of cuckoo do indeed resemble birds of prey but this has probably evolved as a crafty method of deterring predators.

Many country stories are also told about why small birds can be seen mobbing cuckoos. This happens to the adult female because the small birds know that she is nest hunting and they are only trying to protect their own eggs. The cuckoo spends much time waiting in trees and monitoring the nesting activities of potential hosts so that she can synchronise egg production to coincide with theirs.

Once a newly laid nest of eggs is chosen, the cuckoo takes one egg, flies off and eats it, returning immediately to lay her own. The sight of a cuckoo in flight with an egg in her bill led to one belief that the bird laid its egg away from the host's nest then carried it there when the bird was out feeding. Another theory was voiced in an old children's song which describes the cuckoo as having to suck other birds' eggs to "make her song clear".

The cuckoo's ability to lay an egg on demand is because, unlike most birds, she can retain it inside her body for up to 24 hours, giving it a head start on the host's clutch. She may lay between 10 and 25 eggs in any one season, and to prevent them being detected, they are coloured to match those of the host - cuckoos which inhabit pipits' nests lay spotted eggs, while those using the redstarts' nests in Europe lay pale blue ones.

When the young cuckoo hatches, it will hunch its back and push the legitimate eggs out of the nest. From then on it will have its adopted mother's undivided attention - and it is fed not just by her but by other nearby birds as well. With its deafening "feed me" call and its bright orange throat, the young cuckoo is, apparently, irresistible to most birds - except of course, the real cuckoo mother.

But how does the young cuckoo learn its adult call? And why doesn't it automatically copy the song of its host parent? Some country folk thought the parent cuckoo would sit and teach the young once it had left the nest - yet the theory was difficult to sustain, bearing in mind the cuckoo's silence towards the end of June. In the 19th century it was thought that cuckoos learnt their adult call during winter migration or in the following spring after their return.

However, the greatest question has always been why the cuckoo became such a freeloader in the first place. Some believed the bird to be hermaphrodite, giving this as a reason why two cuckoos were supposedly never seen together. A different, more intriguing theory was put forward by the 18th-century French naturalist, Vaillant. He believed the birds were ardent lovers so they had no time for the niceties of household chores. Sounds reasonable, but personally I'd back the danger-dodging theory.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'