Yesterday, I heard a cuckoo for the first time this Spring. Which was hardly surprising, because it was sat about fifteen feet away from me at the time. This was no captive bird, however: this was a truly wild bird, newly arrived from Africa.
Colin, as he is known, is undoubtedly the UK’s most famous cuckoo. He has been arriving at the same site in Surrey for years. Estimates wary: some say he has been here for seven years, some say four. Either way, Colin is a methuselah, an old bird in cuckoo terms who is still flying the four thousand miles from the Ivory coast in sub-Saharan Africa, back to Surrey each year to woo the ladies. He is, if I may say so, looking particularly fine for a bird that must be absolutely knackerred. Colin has become a firm favourite because he willingly trades up close encounters for offerings of live mealworms that his army of fans are all too willing to provide. Like a movie start of old, Colin preens and poses for the camera, before guzzling down so many mealworms that it’s hard to see how he gets into the air again. He then heads off to a distant tract of woodland to start calling to the ladies.
We don’t know if Colin is successful. He’s never been seen in the company of a female, and certainly never brought one back to face the cameras. Perhaps he is simply too old for all that now, or perhaps like many celebrities he doesn’t want his private life papped. If he isn’t breeding, that would be a tragedy, because we need all the cuckoos we can get. When I was a child, the call of the cuckoo would be heard regularly, but numbers have dropped by half in just the last 20 years. The reasons aren’t clear, but the impact of climate change on their crossing of the Sahara is one likely culprit. Cuckoos come here to breed, so inevitably the decline in numbers here is a decline in the numbers who are breeding. In fact, the Cuckoo only says “cuckoo” here: it is a mating call and not something the cuckoo says when overwintering down in Africa. Colin is the first cuckoo I have heard this year and given his age, this may be the last time I hear him. The tragedy is that there may soon come a time when the call of the cuckoo is something that our children will never hear at all.