Cuckoo Charlie Fleming Dartmoor June 2012

ArticlesIn July Away I Fly?

Cuckoo, cuckoo, what do you do?
In April I open my bill;
In May I sing all day;
In June I change my tune;
In July away I fly;
In August away I must.

If there is a bird that is very well known to birders and non-birders alike it must be the Cuckoo.  Its name is its song and its unique method of getting other birds to incubate and rear its young sets it apart from all other UK birds.  That song once heard across large areas of the Devon countryside is now mainly reserved for Dartmoor in April, May and June.

In those ten to twelve weeks female Cuckoos can lay between 2 - 15 eggs; all in different nests and in Devon mainly in those of the Meadow Pipit.  The hatchling  Cuckoos waste no time when hatched in ejecting any other eggs or young from the nest so that all food delivered to the nest is for their consumption and they even mimic the begging calls of their host’s chicks to keep supplies of caterpillars coming in.

Meanwhile, as they grow bigger, their real parents will start their return journey to Africa in July leaving their young to follow much later using their own “built in” sat nav.

Well, 2013 could be a very good year for the future survival of Dartmoor’s Cuckoos.  Four healthy male birds are being tagged to enable scientists to track them to understand the routes they take back to their wintering sites in Africa.  The scientists hope that the knowledge gained about where they fly, where they stop to feed, where they spend the winter and how they make the return journey will help to point to why numbers have declined by 60-70% over the last 20-30 years.

Some of the reasons for their decline could be due to changes in agricultural practices, predation and food availability in the UK but the data from tagging will tell scientists much about their whereabouts and survival during the other nine months of the year when they are out of the country.

Devon Birds are combining with the Dartmoor National Park Authority to fund these four birds to understand more about how to conserve them as an iconic species for Devon and Dartmoor.

Our website will carry news of their journey across Europe and the Mediterranean and then hopefully into Africa before crossing the Sahara Desert and settling down to winter in countries like Cameroon.

Our jointly funded cuckoos will be caught and fitted with their satellite tags in May this year.  Each bird has a customized tag and they will be named as they are released. 

The tagging is part of the national project run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). They have already tagged Cuckoos from Scotland, Wales and East Anglia.  How will our Cuckoos compare?  Most of the above Cuckoos cross the English Channel at the narrowest point, Kent, so will ours move east and then head south for Kent, or will they risk a longer sea crossing?

Information on earlier cuckoos here