Cuckoo goes AWOL

Usually the cuckoo arrives early in the part of the country where I live, and leaves early too. 

I suspect he heads off to somewhere like Connemara or the Burren where cuckoos are far commoner than they are in Leinster. Normally I hear the first calls before the end of April and they stop two or three weeks later. But this year I had to wait until the end of May to hear the first bird, and he’s already left.

I was actually beginning to worry about this. I’ve lived in this part of the world for nearly 40 years and over that timespan cuckoo numbers have declined. But every year I’d heard at least one, though often in the distance.

I was beginning to think this might be the first year without one and the thought was depressing. The sound is such an iconic signal of the imminent arrival of summer that its absence would have left a sad void.

I was beginning to think this might be the first year without one and the thought was depressing. The sound is such an iconic signal of the imminent arrival of summer that its absence would have left a sad void.

The decline in the number of cuckoos round here is a direct consequence of changing patterns of land use. Irish cuckoos are largely dependent on meadow pipits to rear their young. This is a peculiarity of cuckoos hatched in this country — in Britain and other parts of

This is a peculiarity of cuckoos hatched in this country — in Britain and other parts of north western Europe the birds specialise in other host species, particularly reed buntings. And there has been a sharp decline in meadow pipit numbers round here.

In fact, it’s not just round here — they were red-listed for the whole country in 2014 and internationally the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists their conservation status as ‘near threatened’.

In fact, it’s not just round here — they were red-listed for the whole country in 2014 and internationally the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists their conservation status as ‘near threatened’.

Meadow pipits are nondescript little brown birds that are almost never found in meadows. They nest on the ground and their nests would be destroyed the first time a meadow was mowed. They are found to some extent in

They are found to some extent in rough pasture but they prefer non agricultural land and their stronghold round here has always been heather-covered raised bogs where they are, or were, the commonest bird species. Over the past few

Over the past few decades the amount of heather covered bog round here has declined dramatically as a result of mechanised harvesting of turf and peat moss by Bord na Móna and private bog owners. There has also been a reduction in rough, scrubby pasture, though this has not been quite as dramatic.

The impact of all this on meadow pipit populations was exacerbated by largescale deaths from hypothermia in the winters of 2010 and 2011 and the result is that meadow pipits are now decidedly uncommon and the cuckoos can’t find nests to deposit their eggs in.

A young cuckoo imprints on its foster parents and, when it reaches breeding age, is genetically driven to seek out birds of the same species as foster parents for its own young.

It’s not surprising that when they discover a shortage of meadow pipits round here they head for the west for more heather and scrub.


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