Cuckoo (Photo: Cliff Reddick)
Cuckoos are long distance migrants, spending the winter in Africa
Cuckoos arrive in May from Africa and for many people the sound of the first cuckoo calling is one of the most evocative signs that summer has arrived. Cuckoos are also one of the first migrants to leave with the first adults leaving soon after midsummer. Although most people think of Cuckoos as woodland birds, they are common on the Harris moors during spring and summer. Here they feed on the large fury moth caterpillars that other birds find difficult to swallow.
Cuckoos are cheats! (Photo: Cliff Reddick)
Cuckoos don’t make their own nests and don’t look after their own young. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and cleverly trick them into raising their young. On Harris they usually lay their eggs in the nests of Meadow Pipits, one of our commonest moorland birds. They lay eggs that look like pipit eggs so that the pipits don’t notice the difference. Each female Cuckoo will lay many eggs but only one is laid in each nest so they have to find several pipit nests in which to lay their eggs. When they hatch, the cuckoo chick tips the pipits eggs or young out of the nest so that they can take all the food that the pipit parents bring to the nest. The cuckoo chick then makes lots of noise so that the parents think they have lots of chicks to feed. Eventually when the cuckoo is ready to leave the nest it is several times larger than the pipits that are feeding it. It can seem very strange that the pipits carry on feeding the cuckoo chick that looks so different to a young pipit but the pipit parents are instinctively responding to the begging calls of the cuckoo.
(Photo: Cliff Reddick)
Cuckoos will lay their eggs in the nests of many other bird species such as rock pipits and reed warblers. In fact, cuckoos have been known to lay eggs in nests of over 70 different species ! However each cuckoo will usually stick to one ‘host’ species and will lay eggs that look like those of that species.
With their streamlined shape, pointed wings, and grey body, Cuckoo’s can easily be confused with small birds of prey. They can be told apart from Sparrow hawk’s and Merlin’s by their shallow wing beats, rarely raising their wings above horizontal. Cuckoos are often being pursued by several meadow pipits, keen to chase the cuckoo away from their own nests.