Donal Hickey: Keeping an ear out for cuckoo

Some people have reported hearing the cuckoo's call around Mangerton mountain, near Killarney, Co Kerry, writes Donal Hickey

Donal Hickey: Keeping an ear out for cuckoo

Some people have reported hearing the cuckoo's call around Mangerton mountain, near Killarney, Co Kerry, writes Donal Hickey

SOME people visiting the countryside this bank holiday will be listening for the call of the cuckoo, heard in Ireland from April to August, at which point the migrant bird returns to Africa.

The elusive cuckoo is officially green-listed, which puts it outside the endangered zone, though it is not heard as frequently as before when it heralded the coming of summer. I haven’t yet heard the call this year, but some people have reported hearing it around Mangerton mountain, near Killarney, Co Kerry.

Time was when the writers of parish notes in weekly newspapers vied with one another to be first to reveal the arrival of the cuckoo. Alas, we don’t see that any more.

Nowadays, according to groups such as Birdwatch, breeding cuckoo pairs are confined mainly to the west of the Shannon, places such as the Burren and Connemara. The reason, it seems, is that the cuckoo’s nursemaid, the meadow pipit, is still found in reasonable numbers in such areas.

Despite the unpredictability of the seasons nowadays, one age-old weather phenomenon continues. The Scaraveen is the period covering the last two weeks in April and the first fortnight in May when weather can vary greatly, often sending us the last blast of winter. As I write this column on May Day, it’s miserable outside and raining with a temperature of 9C.

Killarney gaeilgoir Sean Looney wrote out for us the Irish version of Scaraveen – is garbh i mi na gcuach (harsh is the month of the cuckoo).

True to form this Scaraveen, we’ve had temperatures ranging from sub-zero degrees to the high teens. Some days, people went around in shirt sleeves and shorts, only to be caught in hail showers. And there was little growth until now.

Many other traditions once marked this time of year. The National Folklore Collection in UCD records how, in the early days of May, people guarded their houses with strings of primroses. The fairies were believed to be active at this time, but were reputed to be unable to pass over, or under, the strings.

Primroses were used for animal and human cures and, in Cork, a tea made from primrose oil was used to treat insomnia. At the moment, primroses are really standing out on ditches, but the similar yellow cowslip is no longer widespread.

In days of youth, we picked cowslips, buttercups and bluebells in the fields for May altars. In those days of pre-intensive farming, fields were full of wildflowers in early summer. Cuckoo listeners, meanwhile, are cautioned by birders not to confuse its call with that of the common dove which has a softer ‘coo-coo-cooing’’ call.

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