This now-rare herald of Spring is a mischief-making parasite

First published in Weekend

IF there is one bird that is linked to the arrival of spring, it is surely the cuckoo.

Down the years, it has been eagerly awaited as evidence that winter has passed, its unmistakable call heralding its presence. Indeed, many of us may have heard the cuckoo without seeing the bird - it seems to have a remarkable capacity for throwing its voice. You hear the call and look for the bird in the wrong place - you think you hear it in one quarter of the countryside whereas the bird in question might be some distance away.

In the past, the presence of the cuckoo was so eagerly awaited that there was a special Cuckoo Day. It was on April 14 - tomorrow in fact - which is also the feast day of St Tiburtius, but it was thought the cuckoos arrived in England on or about that day. There is an old verse which reads, "The cuckoo sings from St Tiburtius Day to St John's Day" - the feast of St John is June 24, Midsummer Day.

When country people first heard the cuckoo, they would turn the money in their purses and pockets in the belief that good luck would help to swell their funds, but equally others thought the presence of the cuckoo heralded rain. In some parts of England, people would roll in the grass upon first hearing the cuckoo on the understanding this would help to prevent backache.

The cuckoo does not remain here very long. A famous old verse reminds us of this brief visit - it goes "In April, come he will, in May he sings all day, in June he changes his tune, in July he prepares to fly and in August, away he must." While here, of course, this parasitic bird causes a great deal of mischief by laying its eggs in the nests of other birds.

The female selects a nest containing eggs, perhaps that of reed warbler, dunnock or meadow pipit - all much smaller than she. She might lay as many as a dozen eggs in a dozen nests. She removes one egg from each nest and replaces it with one of her own which often closely matches the colours and size of the resident brood.

When the cuckoo chick hatches, it immediately begins to hoist the unhatched eggs over the side of the nest, a remarkable achievement, and so destroys them. It then takes over the nest and is lovingly fed by the hapless foster-parents. They don't seem to recognise that this is an intruder and not one of their own species. They feed and tend the growing cuckoo until it is several times their own size; when it is fledged and fully grown, of course, it will leave the nest and head off to Africa for warmer weather.

In appearance, the cuckoo is about the size of a collared dove but has a distinctive hawk-like appearance that often causes it to be mobbed by smaller species. It has a grey back and upper parts with an off-white chest barred with darker flecks. In flight, its wings are pointed but the long tail is rounded at the tip. It is often mistaken for a sparrow hawk which might explain why smaller birds mob it - or they might realise the harm it does!

Today, however, the call of the cuckoo is far from common. Twenty years ago, I could regularly listen to cuckoos in the countryside around my house. Now, it is a rare occasion when one is heard. The decline has been evident for the past 40 or 50 years, with blame being placed on chemical weed-killers, pesticides and the destruction of the habitat of the many small birds who rear our parasitic cuckoo population. Whether climate change is also a factor is a matter of opinion.

With the cuckoo no longer being relied upon to represent the arrival of our spring season, another bird has steadily taken over this role. This is the chiff-chaff, a tiny summer visitor from places like Africa and parts of southern Europe. In considerable numbers, chiff-chaffs arrive in late March and early April and quickly make their presence known by singing from high places like the tops of trees.

The song is unmistakable. It sounds remarkably like "chiff-chaff" hence the bird's name but when perched on a tree or in a bush in leaf, it will be difficult to see. Its plumage is a greyish-green with pale yellow underparts and it is about the size of a blue tit. This little bird is a cousin of the willow warbler and, apart from the song, it is very difficult to distinguish one from the other. Perhaps the willow warbler is rather more green in its upper colours but the only sure way is to look at their legs.

The chiff-chaff has dark brown or dark reddish legs while those of the willow warbler are very pale coloured. So I wonder if, in the future, we'll all be celebrating a chiff-chaff day?

One curious custom which appears to have faded from our collective memory is the celebration of Hocktide.

This occurred on the Monday and Tuesday following Easter week, the respective days being known as Hock Monday and Hock Tuesday. Although the origins of Hocktide are obscure, it seems have been a fun method of raising funds for the parish church. It was very popular and widespread before the Reformation but dwindled afterwards.

Having examined the practices on those two days, I doubt if our current laws would permit Hocktide to continue. On the Monday, the women of the parish had to capture the menfolk and lock them up in a secure place. Then followed a demand for money if the men were to be released.

On the Tuesday, it was the turn of the men to capture the women and either tie them up or lock them in a secure place. This was also followed with a demand for money before the women were released. Any money raised in this way was given to the parish church.

If those were the basic procedures, it doesn't take much imagination together with knowledge of human nature to realise that liberties would be taken. Some villages extended the custom to anyone entering the village at Hocktide. Ropes were strung across the roads to halt vehicles and horses, the people were kidnapped and held to ransom before being released. In some areas, money was not demanded from the captured women - the menfolk settled for a kiss instead.

However, to qualify for a kiss, the men had to pay the ransom fee and so, in such villages, there were a lot of men with very little money to spend on other things. All their spare cash went on buying kisses, most of which did not find its way into church funds. One old Hocktide parish account showed that twenty shillings was collected from the women, but only four shillings from the men.

However, in one town several women caught an unfortunate man and "kissed him till he was black in the face by leather-breeched coalpit women."

Not surprisingly, the authorities realised the celebrations were getting out of hand, as such things so often do, and so the wilder Hocktide celebrations were banned. I believe a variety of the custom does continue in Hungerford where men known as tutti-men carrying a staff decked with spring flowers visit houses in the town to obtain a penny from the men and a kiss from the women. The profits go to church funds. I believe the term 'being in hock' comes from this old custom, the word now being used to describe something retained until a small charge is made for its release, as in a pawnbroker's shop.

Some years ago, there were stories that lambs were sacrificed in either Swaledale or Wensleydale. It was said to have occurred as recently as thirty years ago, undertaken by a vicar who regarded it as some kind of fertility sacrifice. I have to say I have no record of this practice.

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