cuckoo defined in 1930 yearcuckoo - Cuckoo;
cuckoo - Upper parts bluish ash, darker on the wings, lighter on the neck and breast; under parts whitish with transverse dusky streaks; quills barred on the inner webs with oval white spots; tail-leathers blackish, tipped and spotted with white; beak dusky, edged with yellow; orbits and inside of mouth orange yellow; iris and feet yellow. Young: ash-brown barred with reddish brown; tips of feathers white; a white spot on the back of the head. Length, thirteen and a half inches.
There are many cuckoos in the world, and in some countries it would be possible to see three or four, or even half a dozen, distinct species in the course of a single day. We have but one, and have made much of it. ' Perhaps no bird,' says Yarrell, ' has attracted so much attention, while of none have more idle tales been told.' And he might have added, that of no other bird so much remains to be known. Our cuckoo interests us in two distinct ways: he charms us, and he affects the mind with his strangeness. He is a visitor of the early spring, with a far-reaching, yet soft and musical, voice, full of beautiful associations, prophetic of the flowery season. To quote Sir Philip Sidney's words, applying them to a feathered instead of to a human troubadour: ' He cometh to you with a tale to hold children from their play and old men from the chimney- corner.' Seen, this melodist has the bold figure, rough, feathered legs, and barred plumage of a hawk. This fierce, predacious aspect is deceptive: he is a timid bird, with the climbing feet of the woodpecker and wryneck. Strangest of all, the female has the habit of placing her eggs in other birds' nests, forgetting her motherhood, a proceeding which, being contrary to nature's use, seems unnatural. It reads like a tale from the ' Thousand and One Nights,' in which we sometimes encounter human beings, good, or bad, or merely fantastic, who wander about the world disguised as birds. Only when we see and handle the cuckoo's egg placed in the hedge- sparrow's, or pipit's, or wagtail's nest, when we see the large hawk-like young cuckoo being fed and tenderly cared for by its diminutive foster-parent, do we realise the extraordinary nature of such an instinct. In spite of this ' naughtiness ' of the cuckoo, to speak of it in human terms, it is to all a favourite,' the darling of the year,' and from the days when the oldest known English lyric was written -
Summer is icumen in,
Loud sing cuckoo,
to the present time the poets have found inspiration in his fluting call; and musicians, too, owing to that unique quality of his voice which makes it imitable and harmonious with human music, vocal and instrumental.
The cuckoo does not usually arrive in this country before the middle of April, but he is sometimes two, and even three weeks earlier. The males arrive first, and it is they that utter the well- known double call that gives the bird its name. The cry of the female, a curious prolonged bubbling sound, is heard less frequently.
One of the strangest facts in the strange history of this bird is that its egg is not laid in the nest in which it is found, but is carried by the cuckoo in her bill and placed there. It is very small for so large a bird, although much larger, in most cases, than the eggs it is placed with, as its favourite nests in this country are all of small birds - the hedge-sparrow, reed-warbler, pied wagtail, and meadow-pipit. The eggs are very variable, being dull greenish or dull reddish grey, with spots and mottlings of a deeper shade. In some instances the cuckoo's egg resembles in colour the eggs it is placed with, and it is thought by some naturalists that the female cuckoo invariably deposits her eggs in the nests of one species. As a rule, only one egg is laid in a nest, and a few days after the eggs are hatched the young cuckoo gets rid of his foster-brothers by getting them on to his back, which is broad and hollow, and throwing them over the side of the nest. If any unhatched eggs remain in the nest, he gets rid of them in the same way.
The food of the cuckoo is exclusively insectivorous, and consists in large part of hairy caterpillars, which most birds refuse to touch. The indigestible portions of the food he swallows are cast up in small pellets.
By August the old birds take their departure; the young migrate one to two months later.
No fewer than three exotic cuckoos have been placed on the list of British birds. Two of these are American species: the yellow- billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) and the black-billed cuckoo (C. erythrophthalmus). The third is the great spotted cuckoo (Coccystes glandarius), an African species, which visits Spain in summer, and, like our bird, is parasitical, but has the habit of depositing its eggs in the nests of various species of the crow family.
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