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Can there be a more eloquent announcement of Spring than the haunting Cuckoo of the fittingly-named cuckoo? Each year retired Indian Army Cavalry Majors compete to write the first letter to the Times claiming to have heard the cuckoo’s distinctive call through their ear-trumpet. But just what do we really know about these beloved seasonal visitors?
Every year for millennia, the cuckoo has visited our shores in the spring in search of abundant insects and cheap child-care but it is a little known fact that they have not always been welcomed. In 1886 The Daily Telegraph ran an article claiming that cuckoos were ‘Little better than Romanian gypsies, visiting our blessed isle in search of free bed and board’ and the Daily Mail organised the 1892 Sussex cuckoo-pogrom.
Perhaps the cuckoo’s bad press over the years has something to do with its reputation for brood parasitism – where parent cuckoos deposit their young on other, unwitting bird species. This is unfortunate because of the 63 species of cuckoo around the world only those which inhabit countries with generous social welfare programmes actually engage in brood-parasitism and then purely to the advantage of the host.
In early spring the cuckoo returns from Africa and looks for a suitable nest. It is unclear how the cuckoo sustains itself during its long African sojourn, but it is assumed that it follows European tradition in dispossessing native bird-species and forcing them to farm and mine on its behalf.
Having selected a suitable nest, the cuckoo will lay a single egg of similar markings. The cuckoo has been shown to be able to produce white, green, pale blue and brown and eggs, either plain, mottled or paisley in pattern. The egg is larger than the host birds’ own eggs and hatches sooner, thus allowing the host family to claim child benefit more quickly.
Once hatched, the cuckoo chick begins immediate, plaintive calling for food. But that’s kids for you. The host parents then begin an almost incessant feeding pattern. Perhaps, the least understood part of cuckoo behaviour occurs when the host family’s own eggs hatch. Within minutes, the cuckoo chick will manoeuvre the hatchling into a groove on its back, and eject it from the nest to its certain death.
Over the centuries, this has been seen as little better than murder. However, evolutionary biologists now see this beneficial to the host, since waiting for the chick to be born allows the parents to claim a whole month of child benefit without the need to cater for additional offspring.
In addition, families also receive criminal injury compensation as the result of the violent death, and many are also able to claim invalidity benefit due to the associated stress. This allows most host birds to feed the cuckoo chick without the need to go out to work, while leaving sufficient spare cash to indulge their taste for chain-smoking and plasma TV.
Cuckoos in popular culture
The word ‘cuckoo’ is synonymous with madness in English, though it is not certain why. One suggestion has been that there is a higher than average rate of mental health problems within cuckoo populations. It is unclear, however, whether this is due to the trauma of their early lives, or whether it is feigned in order to claim generous state handouts to the gibberingly insane.
Perhaps the cuckoo’s most popular contribution to world culture is the cuckoo clock. Now little more than a novelty, this Swiss staple harks back to a pre-industrial age when clockwork mechanisms were beyond the reach of the ordinary peasantry. Cuckoos unwilling to return to Africa, or unable to afford the air-fare would spend the winter days operating the clock’s internal treadmill in return for a generous supply of worms.
The most famous cuckoo is the roadrunner. Native of New Mexico, the roadrunner cannot rely on welfare and has therefore adapted its behaviour. No longer able to rely on host parents to feed them, roadrunner chicks swiftly graduate to unique coyote-predation.
Unable to chase down its prey, the roadrunner has learned to entice coyotes into ever more elaborate attempts to catch it. Inevitably, the often rocket-assisted efforts eventually end in the coyote’s death, allowing the roadrunner to feed off its carrion.
Roadrunners occasionally take an active part in coyote hunting, most usually by painting unconvincing tunnels into sheer rock faces. Once the roadrunner is sure that the coyote has spotted this obvious subterfuge the roadrunner then runs into the tunnel prompting the coyote to follow to its inevitable death at the hands of an emerging locomotive. The Roadrunner then follows the train until the coyote corpse eventually falls onto the tracks where it begins to feast by first pecking out the eyes and then using the Coyote's ACME credit card to dial for pizza