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
Saturday 17 May 1997
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.
- 1 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 2 Anti-gay hate preacher accidentally tweets 4,000 followers cartoon clip of him 'confessing' to be a 'homosexual sodomite'
- 3 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 4 Grayson Perry: London needs affordable housing because 'rich people don't create culture'
- 5 Kenya bus attack: Al-Shabaab militants slaughter 28 non-Muslims who failed to recite Koran
Ryan Gosling granted temporary restraining order against a woman 'convinced she was his twin flame'
Jennifer Lawrence sings in new The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1 clip on YouTube
Anti-gay hate preacher accidentally tweets 4,000 followers cartoon clip of him 'confessing' to be a 'homosexual sodomite'
Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
Grayson Perry: London needs affordable housing because 'rich people don't create culture'
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Revealed: How the world gets rich – from privatising British public services
Myleene Klass: Ed Miliband 'strikes back' by comparing UK's need for Labour's mansion tax to Hear'Say track
Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...
£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...