The Cuckoo—A Cunning Rogue?
By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
IN Russia it is called the kukusbka, in Germany the kuckuck, in France the coucou, in the Netherlands the koekoek, and in Japan the kak-ko. Yet, by whatever name it is known, whether in Scotland or on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, it is the same bird—the common cuckoo.
In full plumage it is a handsome bird, nearly as big as a pigeon, yet weighing less than four ounces (113 gm). Of clear-ash coloring, it has a distinctive barred waistcoat, with white spots and tips on its long tail. Among bird cries, its “cuckoo” is unique.
Fascinating as the bird is, it does have traits that may make it seem to be somewhat of a rogue. The common cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds and never bothers to build a nest for itself.
Choosing Foster Parents
The hen cuckoo selects another bird to be the foster parent of its young. She watches the nest-building activities of the chosen foster parent, and after one or more eggs have been laid in the nest, the cuckoo deposits one of her own eggs while the other bird is absent. Since the hen cuckoo lays between 12 and 20 eggs in a season, she has quite a few foster parents to find.
In some mysterious way the female manages to disguise her eggs sufficiently to look like those of the foster parent she has chosen. Ranging through five shades from brown to green, and having a variety of stains and blotchy markings, the cuckoo’s eggs may be pear-shaped or spherical, yet small in relation to the bird’s size.
The deception, however, evidently does not stop there. Some observers say that she removes one of the original eggs from the foster parent’s nest and either eats it or drops it as she flies away.
Rearing of Young Cuckoos
The incubation period of a cuckoo’s egg is only 12-1/2 days, so this egg is often the first one in the nest to hatch. It seems that the young cuckoo, about 10 hours after hatching, is unable to bear having anything touch it; and, for this instinctive reason, it makes desperate attempts to eject other eggs or baby nestlings from the nest. On the baby cuckoo’s back is a highly sensitive cavity into which it maneuvers the offending egg or nestling, then, with much struggling and by using its featherless wings and stiffening its legs, it forces the burden out of the nest, leaving itself the sole occupant. Failures are rare, even though the youngster is blind, naked and seemingly helpless. The instinct is strong to rid itself of all rivals that would contend with it at feeding times.
Such is the impressive power of its commanding call “chiz, chiz, chiz,” that not only do its foster parents spend all their time in searching for food for it, but other birds also feel compelled to drop tidbits, intended for their own offspring, into the baby cuckoo’s ever-open mouth. Often overflowing the frail nest not built for it, it strongly resents any kind of interference, hissing defiance and pecking furiously at a human hand and sometimes even at the bird that has just fed it!
It seems strange that the instinct of the foster parents to rear this unlovable nestling is so strong, so compelling. However, any possible perception they might have that this is not one of their offspring evidently is swallowed up in the struggle to feed it for the necessary 20 days or so before it is ready to fend for itself.
Mysteries of Migration
When the seasons change, the cuckoos are on their way from the British Isles to Africa. But the young ones often go weeks after their parents have left. How do they, along with other migrants, find their way over vast landmasses and seas, often flying at great heights where oxygen is likely to be scarce, beset with cold and high winds—and yet arrive at their destinations with the precision of a computerized journey? Only the Creator knows.
In the spring they find their way back again. Year after year adult birds return to the exact territory they occupied the summer before. Each cock announces its arrival by persistent calling, thereby staking out its claim to a certain stretch of land as its feeding ground.
As for the female, whom will she select as the foster parents for her young? Robins, meadow pipits, sedge warblers, reed warblers, pied wagtails, dunnocks, bullfinches and others have become unwitting parents to those greedy baby cuckoos. But the female remembers the species that reared her and she chooses the same species to hatch her eggs and rear her young.
Useful Feeding Habits
Despite its many unfavourable characteristics, the common cuckoo does have some useful habits. Always a greedy creature, it is this insatiable desire for food that apparently accounts for its eating destructive larvae that other birds will not touch. These larvae, among them the tiger, ermine, drinker or gold-tail moths, have irritating hairs that protect them from other birds, yet hold no fear for the hungry cuckoo. Similarly two other larvae, the magpie moth and the gooseberry sawfly, have protective coloring that scares off other birds, but not so the cuckoo, which finds them very much to its liking. Beetles, worms, centipedes—all are greedily devoured by this ever-hungry bird.
According to human standards, the cuckoo might well be classed as a rogue. But, then, it is not human. The way in which it imposes the care of its offspring on others may seem shocking, but the other birds are not complaining. The cuckoo lives according to the pattern set for it by the Creator, contributing its part to the balance of nature. And while it does so, it carries on in a way that fascinates all who observe it, and that, too, is evidently what the Creator purposed.