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CUCKOO

Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V07, Page 609 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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CUCKOO, or Cucxow, as the word was formerly spelt, the common name of a well-known and often-heard bird, the Cuculus canorus of Linnaeus. In some parts of the United Kingdom it is more frequently called gowk, and it is the Gr. K6KKV;=, the Ital. cuculo or cucco, the Fr. coucou, the Ger. Kuckuk, the Dutch koekkoek, the Dan. kukker or gjog, and the Swed. gok. The oldest English spelling of the name seems to have been cuccu. No single bird has perhaps so much occupied the attentionboth of naturalists and of those who are not naturalists, or has had so much written about it, as the common cuckoo, and of no bird perhaps have more idle tales been told. Its strange and, according to the experience of most people, its singular habit of entrusting its offspring to foster-parents is enough to account for much of the interest which has been so long felt in its history; but this habit is shared probably by many of its Old World relatives, as well as in the New World by birds which are not in any degree related to it. The cuckoo is a summer visitant to the whole of Europe, reaching even far within the Arctic circle, and crossing the Mediterranean from its winter quarters in Africa at the end of March or beginning of April. Its arrival is at once proclaimed by the peculiar and in nearly all languages onomatopoeic cry of the cock—a true song in the technical sense of the word, since it is confined to the male sex and to the season of love. In a few days the cock is followed by the hen, and amorous contests between keen and loud-voiced suitors are to be commonly noticed, until the respective pretensions of the rivals are decided. Even by night they are not silent; but as the season advances the song is less frequently heard, and the cuckoo seems rather to avoid observation as much as possible, the more so since whenever it shows itself it is• a signal for all the small birds of the neighbourhood to be up in its pursuit, just as though it were a hawk, to which indeed its mode of flight and general appearance give it an undoubted resemblance—a resemblance that misleads some into confounding it with the birds of prey, instead of recognizing it as a harmless if not a beneficial destroyer of hairy caterpillars. Thus pass away some weeks. Towards the middle or end of June its " plain-song " cry alters; it becomes rather hoarser in tone, and its first syllable or note is doubled. Soon after it is no longer heard at all, and by the middle of July an old cuckoo is seldom to be found in the British Islands, though a stray example, or even, but very rarely, two or three in company, may occasionally be seen for a month longer. Of its breeding comparatively few have any personal experience. Yet a diligent search for and peering into the nests of several of the commonest little birds—more especially the pied wagtail(Motacilla lugubris),the titlark(Anthus pratensis), the reed-wren (Acrocephalus streperus), and the hedge-sparrow (Accentor modularis)—will be rewarded by the discovery of the egg of the mysterious stranger which has been surreptitiously introduced, and those who wait till this egg is hatched may be witnesses (as was Edward _Termer in the 18th century) of the murderous eviction of the rightful tenants of the nest by the intruder, who, hoisting them one after another on his broad back, heaves them over to die neglected by their own parents, of whose solicitous care he thus becomes the only object. In this manner he thrives, and, so long as he remains in the country of his birth his wants are anxiously supplied by the victims of his mother's dupery. The actions of his foster-parents become, when he is full grown, almost ludicrous, for they often have to perch between his shoulders to place in his gaping mouth the delicate morsels he is too indolent or too stupid to take from their bills. Early in September he begins to shift for himself, and then follows the seniors of his kin to more southern climes. So much caution is used by the hen cuckoo in choosing a nest in which to deposit her egg that the act of insertion has been but seldom witnessed. The nest selected is moreover often so situated, or so built, that it would be an absolute impossibility for a bird of her size to lay her egg therein by sitting upon the' fabric as birds commonly do; and there have been a few fortunate observers who have actually seen the deposition of the egg upon the ground by the cuckoo, who, then taking it in her bill, introduces it into the nest. Of these; the earliest in Great Britain seem to have been two Scottish lads, sons of Mr Tripeny, a farmer in Coxmuir, who, as recorded by Macgillivray (Brit. Birds, iii. 130, 131) from information communicated to him by Mr Durham Weir, saw most part of the operation performed, June 24, 1838. But perhaps the most satisfactory evidence on the point is that of Adolf Muller, a forester at Gladenbach in Darmstadt, who says (Zoolog. Garten,1866, pp. 374, 375) that through a telescope he watched a cuckoo as she laid her egg on a bank, and then conveyed the egg in her bill to a wagtail's nest. Cuckoos, too, have been not unfrequently shot as they were carrying a cuckoo's egg, presumably their own, in their bill, and this has probably given rise to the vulgar, but seemingly groundless, belief that they suck the eggs of other kinds of birds. More than this, Mr G. D. Rowley, who had much experience of cuckoos, declares (Ibis, 1865, p. 186) his opinion to be that traces of violence and of a scuffle between the intruder and the owners of the nest at the time of introducing the egg often appear, whence we are led to suppose that the cuckoo ordinarily, when inserting her egg, excites the fury (already stimulated by her hawk-like appearance) of the owners of the nest by turning out one or more of the eggs that may be already laid therein, and thus induces the dupe to brood all the more readily and more strongly what is left to her. Of the assertion that the cuckoo herself takes any interest in the future welfare of the egg she has foisted on her victim, or of its product, there is no good evidence. But a much more curious assertion has also been made, and one that at first sight appears so incomprehensible as to cause little surprise at the neglect it long encountered. To this currency was first given by Salerne (L'Hist. nat. &c., Paris, 1767, p. 42), who was, however, hardly a believer in it, and it is to the effect, as he was told by an inhabitant of Sologne, that the egg of a cuckoo resembles in colour that of the eggs normally laid by the kind of bird in whose nest it is placed. In 1853 the same notion was prominently and independently brought forward by Dr A. C. E. Baldamus (Naumannia, 1853, pp. 307-325), and in time became known to English ornithologists, most of whom were naturally sceptical as to its truth, since no likeness whatever is ordinarily apparent in the very familiar case of the blue-green egg of the hedge-sparrow and that of the cuckoo, which is so often found beside it.' Dr Baldamus based his notion on a series of eggs in his cabinet,2 a selection from which he figured in illustration of his paper, and, however the thing may be accounted for, it seems impossible to resist, save on one supposition, the force of the testimony these specimens afford. This one supposition is that the eggs have been wrongly ascribed to the cuckoo, and that they are only exceptionally large examples of the eggs of the birds in the nests of which they were found, for it cannot be gainsaid that some such abnormal examples are occasionally to be met with. But it is well known that abnormally large eggs are not only often deficient in depth of colour, but still more often in stoutness of shell. Applying these rough criteria to Dr Baldamus's series, most of the specimens stood the test very well. There are some other considerations to be urged. For instance, Herr Braune, a forester at Greiz in the principality of Reuss (Naumannia, tom. cit. pp. 307, 313), shot a hen cuckoo as she was leaving the nest of an icterine warbler (Hypolais icterina). In the oviduct of this cuckoo he found an egg coloured very like that of the warbler, and on looking into the nest he found there an exactly similar egg, which there can be no reasonable doubt had just been laid by that very cuckoo. Moreover, Herr Grunack (Journ. far Orn., 1873, p. 454) afterwards found one of the most abnormally coloured specimens, quite unlike the ordinary egg of the cuckoo, to contain an embryo so fully formed as to show the characteristic zygodactyl feet of the bird, thus proving unquestionably its parentage. On the other hand, we must bear in mind the numerous instances in which not the least similarity can be traced—as in the not uncommon case of the hedge-sparrow already mentioned, and if we attempt any explanatory hypothesis it must be one that will fit all round. Such an explanation seems to be this. We know that certain kinds of birds resent interference with their nests much less than others, and among them it may be asserted that the hedge-sparrow will patiently submit to various experiments. She will brood with complacency the egg of a redbreast (Erithacus rubecula), so unlike her own, and for aught we know to the contrary may even be colour-blind. In the case ' An instance to the contrary has been recorded by Mr A. C. Smith (Zoologist, 1873, p. 3516) on Mr Brine's authority. 2 This series was seen in 1861 by the writer.
End of Article: CUCKOO
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CUCHULINN (Cuchuinn; pronounced " Coohoollin ")
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