Cuckoos venture to pastures new

IT’S been a good year for cuckoos, for me, at least. In the last six weeks or so I’ve heard calling males in three different counties in three different provinces.

The first was in my own garden in Co Kildare, in Leinster. I didn’t note the date but it was towards the end of April and I was in my greenhouse potting plants when it started calling. It only stayed for two days and then moved on. I suspect that it was a fairly early arrival from Africa on passage to somewhere further west and it just stopped to rest and scout around.

In the third week of May I took a short break to fish the mayfly on Lough Conn in Co Mayo. There were cuckoos calling all around the lake from dawn until dusk. Then over the bank holiday weekend at the end of May and beginning of June, I stayed in Ballinskelligs in south Kerry and there was a distant male calling the whole time I was there.

I suspect my Munster cuckoo was the last one I’ll hear this year. Male cuckoos normally stop calling around now. The females lay their eggs, usually between 10 and 20, each one in a different host nest, and then both parents return to sub-Saharan Africa. The foster parents are left to raise the chicks who then have to find their own way back to Africa.

Internationally the conservation status of the common cuckoo is classified as ‘of least concern’. The number of cuckoos visiting Ireland every year is estimated as between 3,000 and 6,000 pairs. But apparently this number is decreasing steadily, particularly east of the Shannon.

The scientific evidence for this is not conclusive but the anecdotal evidence is very strong.

Where I live, people of a certain age are very nostalgic about the sound of the cuckoo. It is an iconic sound of their youth and when they hear one today they get very excited.

If the international status of the cuckoo is healthy but it is declining in Ireland then it follows that the problem is not caused by something that’s happening in its African wintering grounds but by something that’s happening here. It also seems that this problem is more acute in Leinster than in the other provinces.

The cuckoos that migrate northwards to breed in Europe and Asia every spring are divided into a number of distinct genetic groups, each specialising in a different host species to raise its young. They are primed to lay eggs that mimic those of the host species. In some countries they target reed warblers, in others dunnocks or robins. But the ones that come to Ireland specialise almost exclusively in meadow pipits as a host.

The raised bogs of Ireland are, or were, concentrated largely in mid-Leinster with the Bog of Allen as a centrepiece. The meadow pipit is not a very aptly named bird because around here it lives almost exclusively in bogs, not meadows.

Machinery has been steadily draining and cutting the raised bogs of Leinster for the past 60 years and now there is only a tiny fraction left intact. So my theory is that meadow pipits have declined in numbers as their habitat has shrunk and the cuckoos that used to be so plentiful around here moved on. The bird I heard calling in April was trying out an ancestral habitat but it decided things just weren’t what they used to be.

dick.warner@examiner.ie


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