"Sumer is icumen in
Loud sing cuccu!
Spryngeth sed and bloweth mede
And groweth the wude nu."
English song, c. 1250
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Cuu-cuu-cuu ... a black-billed cuckoo calls from within the curtain of leaves in the woods of our backyard. Not an hour later as I am walking down the road, a yellow-billed cuckoo gowp-gowps from behind a verdant wall of blossoming honeysuckle. The cuckoo clock has chimed twice this morning when many a year it remains silent.
Cuckoos are beautiful, slender birds with long, patterned tails and sharp, decurved bills. They are not passeriforms -- perching birds -- although like other woodland birds, they perch and hop from branch to branch. Cuckoos along with their cousins, the roadrunners and the anis, are in a class by themselves with that odd foot pattern, two toes forward and two back.
Forbush describes the bird thus, "The cuckoo is a graceful, elegant bird, calm and unperturbed; it slips quietly and rather furtively through its favorite tangles ... "
The two species found here, the black-billed, Coccyzus erythropthalmus, and yellow-billed, Coccyzus americanus, travel though dense tangles of shrubs and woods onomatopoetically softly calling variations of the name. Unlike good children, they are more often heard than seen. And heard they are. For in almost every language the bird’s call becomes its name: in French, coucou; in German, kuckuck; in Italian, cuculo; in Spanish, cuco; in Russian, kuskka. The ancient Greek, kokkyx, gives us the genus.
In the "Fieldbook of Wild Birds and their Music," F. Schuyler Mathews, states, "The yellow-billed cuckoo scarcely deserves a position with the songsters for his note is almost without pitch." He continues, " ... but in quality nothing can be compared with this slopping performance, unless it be the loose-mouthed hound lapping from a pan of milk."
A little harsh, I think. Even Beethoven was taken with the sound of the cuckoo and incorporated his two notes along with the songs of the nightingale and quail, into "The Pastoral" (Sixth Symphony).
In Europe, this bird is the most well-known seasonal marker of spring, much the way our red-winged blackbirds, robins and phoebes are. In ancient Rome, hearing the first cuckoo was recorded as "annunciatrix optatae laetitiae," the "announcer of great happiness."
The cuckoo’s reputation varies wildly. In early translations of the Bible, the cuckoo is listed as one of the food "abominations," along with hawks, vultures, owls, swans, herons, etc. (Leviticus 11:13-19). Mr. Cuckoo has been dropped from recent biblical translations, but this has not given rise to any cuckoo recipes. Nor would you want to eat one. The cuckoo’s constant diet -- and they are friends to farmers the world over -- is caterpillars, especially tent caterpillars, and they are not fussy. Big, small, hairy or spined, cuckoos scoff them up.
Snakes, frogs, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers feature as appetizers, entrées, desserts on menus in cuckooland. Not to be confused with cloud-cuckoo-land (Aristophanes), the term bestowed on those who pursue an absurdly over-optimistic life with impractical plans.
Our species of cuckoos are not as parasitic as their European cousin, the cuckoo, (Cuculus canorus) which never builds a nest of its own, but makes use of whatever nest is nearby. Our two species are very poor nest builders; the yellow-billed worse than the black-billed. They pick up twigs, rootlets, and sticks and "slovenly’’ place them on small, frail platforms often without a deep enough depression to keep the eggs from rolling out. These shabby nests may be blown away. So on occasion, our cuckoos do espy a better-constructed nest and there lay eggs that match the host’s but are a little larger.
Since this bird has a habit of letting others raise its young, in early France it became associated with adultery. Shakespeare went one step further and coined the English word "cuckold" for those men whose wives were unfaithful and their children’s parentage questionable. "The cuckoo then on every tree/Mocks married men/ For thus sings he/ Cuckoo/O, note of fear,/ Unpleasing to the married ear." "Love Labour’s Lost."
Maybe, though, dropping the eggs in another’s nest is a form of Avian Outward Bound, giving the nestling the opportunity to learn on his own. Most do grow up and become regular cuckoos, eating scores of caterpillars and wending their way back to the cuckoo community’s winter residences.
History is rife with cuckoo superstitions, myths and fables. Among the world-at-large, cuckoos are unfaithful, ungrateful and foolish tedious triflers. They are monotonous singers full of braggadocio, avarice, jealousy and cowardliness. Of late, "cuckoo" has also come to mean stupid, unconventional and insane. Milton termed them "the rude bird of Hate" since they were failures at love.
Most poets, though, praise the cuckoo as a harbinger of spring, a secretive but vocal creature, that blends into the greening woodland. Wordsworth in "The Cuckoo," pens, "Thrice welcome, darling of spring!/Even yet thou art to me/No bird, but an invisible thing,/A voice, a mystery."
The cuckoos are calling again this morning, can summer be far away?
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.