Hearing the first cuckoo in spring is a special moment that has captured the imagination of writers, poets and musicians over the centuries. But for how much longer? Is it ‘last call’ for these spring visitors?
‘I heard my first cuckoo today‘ – if only !
In a recent Gardeners’ World programme on BBC 2 there was a delightful moment when Monty, the presenter, paused as he was being filmed, to let us hear a cuckoo calling in the fields near his garden. Thanks Monty, for noticing and letting us share in the precious experience!
I doubt there were many among the several million viewers who have heard that iconic sound in recent years. Sadly, the last time for me was (too) many years ago, when we lived in Kent.
It was a clear sunny day in May and we were sitting in the car, relaxing after a picnic lunch, beside the little river Darent. This beautiful little river, that flows though the North Downs, used to be a favourite spot of ours.
As we watched the river flowing by, I was listening for birdsong. While day-dreaming pleasant thoughts of the approaching summer, I suddenly heard that haunting, mellow, flute-like call of a cuckoo calling. It was a magical moment -just once, then silence.
I was immediately transported back to many happy occasions in the past of hearing that glorious call ringing across the fields. It used to awaken pleasant feelings of spring promise and it was so much part of the English landscape then. We heard it regularly in the fields at the bottom of our garden in Berkshire throughout April, May and June. I also remember once seeing a young cuckoo on the fence in our garden.
From my own home town, comes that most ancient verse which dates from the old Reading Abbey in the 13th century. This was written 100 years before Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ and it celebrates the arrival of summer. Originally used as a ’round’ it’s now sung every May Day from the top of Magdalene College, Oxford.
For one summer I worked near the Abbey ruins and had my sandwich lunch in the Forbury Gardens nearby. Henry 1 was buried in the Abbey, but his exact burial site is at present unknown, and the archaeologists are searching for it.
‘Summer is icumen in (‘summer is come’)
Sing loudly, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf
(First verse -translated from the old ‘Middle English’)
Last Call for the Cuckoo?
‘The haunting call of this elusive bird, heralding-in our English springtime; its notes echoing mysteriously over the burgeoning spring landscape, is something fast fading into the mists of time…
…As for the future, such things will perhaps have no actual meaning in reality, except in the words of poets and in this lovely music evoking the spirit of something sweet, long gone!’
Jayne Anne Strutt – commenting in You-Tube on a recording of Delius’ ‘ On hearing the first cuckoo in spring.’ Thank you Jayne for this lovely contribution.
Looking at the recent bird-sightings listed in the Sussex Ornithological Survey website, so far this spring I can see only a few reports of cuckoos. These birds are in serious decline. Are they soon to become a mere dream? I hope not. There’s a fascinating study of the migration problems facing cuckoos in the B.T.O. website. You can even sponsor a ‘tagged’ cuckoo!
Update – Summer 2020
By the way, have you heard a cuckoo this year? If so I would love to hear?This spring, friends living a mile from us here reported hearing one. Are they coming back? I am hopeful – maybe next year I will hear one again! See more in my follow-up post ‘The Cuckoos are Back‘.
Credit – Photo of Cuckoo – Wikimedia Commons
6 thoughts on “Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring”
I’ve never had the good fortune to hear a cuckoo, I suspect I don’t have much chance living in the north, especially now that they’ve declined so much.
Sadly, we all share the loss, From the BTO website that I mention,I can understand the problems that the cuckoos face on their long migration from central Africa. They only spend about 13% of the year in this country before flying back south. Little surprise we see so few.
But here’s hoping!
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Richard, your post reminded me of the North American wood thrush – the remarkable and rare bird song that stays with one. I have always loved “Summer is icumen in” – here’s a nice version by the Hilliard Ensemble – https://youtu.be/sMCA9nYnLWo How well you combine music and the garden!
Thanks for the link. I came across it when doing my post. Having been brought up in Reading, I feel a strong link to this ancient song. I must find out more about your American birds. Music goes so well with gardens, as is demonstrated in your own beautiful blog posts.
A wonderful, if a little sad, piece. Let’s hope we haven’t lost the cuckoo, despite their greedy ways. I’m pretty sure I have heard Summer is icumen in, possibly at school or university – it certainly sparked a memory of dusty, warm, dappled days. And Reading needs to go on the list – along with the thousands of other wonderful places to visit and write about in our country; we are so very lucky.
Thank you. I’m amazed how you manage to get around as you do. You must be always travelling! But we all enjoy the results of your visits. The post that waits about Reading Abbey is perhaps ‘The search for the lost King’ (Henry II). They found Richard III’s burial place in that car park in Leicester but so far not Henry’s in Reading. Perhaps I should write it!