Cash-in, Keep Track of Chris the Cuckoo (now Back in Europe this Spring)
In France le coucou — the herald of Spring — is closely associated with the feast of St. Benedict, Annunciation Day, coins jingling (or not) in your pocket and a happy marriage! Wondering how to join those dots …?
Well for one and for good measure, readers can satellite track M. Coucou — or rather Chris the Cuckoo, currently sojourning in Burgundy — on an epic migration out of Africa across France and back to the UK.
As Spring makes a reluctant effort to secure its grip on rural France Mike Alexander, French News Online’s environment correspondent has been delving into the life of the cuckoo, a bird which, if it were human, would these days be subject to court orders and strict social worker supervision. Here is his report:
“I heard my first cuckoo call last week, announcing the start of spring. A daring call, considering that it was only 5°C and drizzling. In the south of France the cuckoo, or coucou as it is better known here, is supposed to call by the feast of St. Benedict on the 21st of March and is considered to have been frozen if he has not been heard by Annunciation Day on the 25th of March.
“I cannot vouch for this fable or say how global climate cycles are affecting the cuckoo’s arrival but there is another legend to which I am absolutely able to lend more credence.
“The French around here will tell you very knowingly that provided you have money in your pocket when you hear the first cuckoo of the year and you then jingle the coins along in time to the bird-song, you will be rich for the rest of the year. Conversely a lack of coins to jingle at the magical moment will leave you poor and deprived. Well having had no money in my pocket for each of the last three years on which I have heard that familiar cry, and having remained consistently broke, I think I can safely say I am living proof that this is a wives’ tale which has more than a ring of truth.
“French traditionalists will further tell you M. Coucou arriving as he does with the Spring also represents a happy marriage, presumably because the birds do not have to bring up their own kids. Cuckoos are probably most famous for their parasitic habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. Hen cuckoos will lay between 8 and 25 eggs per season and each will be laid in the nest of a different bird. Interestingly, the eggs are normally exactly the same colour as those of the bird who is being deceived into nurturing in loco parentis. While the process is not yet fully understood a cuckoo is known mainly to favour the nest of a bird of the same species that brought her up and here reed warblers and dunnocks are M. Coucou’s most frequent victims.
“The cuckoo has a similar appearance to a sparrow hawk and scientists say this is to enable the male cuckoo easily to scare birds off their nest enabling the female very quickly to deposit her egg and remove one of the original eggs from the invaded nest. Mlle Coucou can incubate her egg in her body for twenty four to forty eight hours longer than most birds thus ensuring her imposed chick hatches first. Once it does it is quick to eliminate competition and shuffle the eggs and other chicks out of the nest thus ensuring in the best Darwinian fashion, the triumph of cuckoo over reluctant host.
“In England there has been a 63% decline in breeding pairs over the last 25 years and the bird is now red-listed (as in endangered species). The decline in other areas has been less noticeable and it is thought that intensive agriculture may be leading to a loss of insects, such as caterpillars, on which cuckoos survive.
“In 2011 the British Trust for Ornithology started a tracking program so that as better to understand the hardships facing these birds on their long and complicated migration to winter resting grounds in central Africa. The birds are fitted with a new 5-gram solar charged tracking device and their movements are monitored by satellite.
“Most of the birds being tracked are males as it is easier to trap the male than the female. However when a wounded female was nursed back to health by bird care organization Wildlife Aid, she was fitted with a tracker and flown to Italy on a BA 737 jet to catch up with her migratory mates as they hit the southern flyways . The whole journey is fraught with danger and French News Online has sponsored Chris the Cuckoo through BTO and will be bringing regular updates about the tracking history.”
Here meanwhile is a version of a piano work for soloist by French composer Louis-Claude Daquin: Le Coucou (The Cuckoo), played here by Phillip Sear
The BTO website’s tracking report on Chris the Cuckoo says he is now in Europe.
“From Ghana, Chris has travelled around 4,600km in approximately a week and has made it to France! If he is still in good condition after this huge journey and the weather is kind, he could be home (in the UK) in the next few days. Meanwhile, two of the Cuckoos have surprised us by heading even further west within Africa, into Sierra Leone and Guinea. Signals received yesterday morning 9 Apr 2013 show that Chris has continued quickly onwards from Italy and is already in France, travelling 450km to Charbonnat in southern Burgundy with little rest. This has been a very fast paced journey from Ghana – Chris has covered about 4,600 km in less than a week, which is not much slower than the fastest of the swifts we have tracked with geolocators!….”
Want to track a cuckoo?
The Good News: Our Cuckoo Chris is back in Europe for Spring 2014
I first wrote about the cuckoo in April 2013 noting it has undergone a dramatic decline in its numbers over the last 25 years. Now in Spring 2014 while not often seen, their unmistakable calls have been ringing out across much of France during the past few weeks as they return to Europe after overwintering in the forests of Africa. Some of those birds arriving will stay here in France to deposit their eggs into the nests of unsuspecting foster parents whilst others will head north to England and even occasionally as far as Scotland.
In 2011 the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) started a tracking program in which ten birds were captured and fitted with tiny radio tracking transmitters weighing just 5 grams each. BTO offered the opportunity to sponsor each bird and via a small donation French News Online joined the program enabling us to monitor the sponsored bird’s progress while simultaneously giving a little something to the work of the BTO.
Well our bird, which readers may remember was named Chris, has just made it back to the UK for the third year in a row, the only member of the original team of ten to manage this feat for three years in a row. His return trip of 5000 miles is not only an extraordinary example of flight and navigation; it has also offered researchers and scientists a lot more insight into the migratory behavior of these birds.
The hope is that in building up a clearer picture of migratory patterns and systems, this will lead to better management of the habitat they use on their journey, in this way increasing their chances of survival and eventually leading to an increase in the population of this species. Chris for example, spent a month in the watershed area of the River Po in Italy, fattening up before heading south to the Congo. This combined with information from other ringed birds has enabled scientists to confirm this as an important rest area for the cuckoo as they head south for the winter.
What the radio tracking also revealed is that these birds have quite diverse habits and though the overall migration is somewhat similar, each bird has its own preference as to which route it takes from Europe to Africa and back again. Once in the Congo, Chris went deep into the forest whereas most of the other birds being tracked preferred to remain on the forest periphery.
This new technology has allowed scientists to learn much more about these elusive birds and it is now likely that radio tracking will be brought into much wider use which in turn could lead to increased knowledge of the life and habits of other migratory birds.
Story: Mike Alexander
Mike Alexander is a regular contributor to French News Online, offering topical gardening advice in his monthly column and exploring quirky nature and food habits in France. Read his gardening advice here and here
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