AS the evenings grow darker, I have found myself becoming aware of some species of birds that I have not seen during the recent summer. Normally, naturalists and bird watchers take note of the birds they have seen or heard but perhaps this year, the most conspicuous absence has been that of the cuckoo.
I have neither seen one nor heard its familiar call this year and several people have contacted me to ask what has happened to these popular (but cruel) visitors. Some regular cuckoo watchers report no sightings this year, along with a corresponding absence of their unmistakeable call. Quite often, we can hear the cuckoo’s call without catching sight of the bird although they seem to have favourite haunts.
So what has happened to the cuckoos?
It seems there are several theories. For some years, there has been a decline in the number of cuckoos that have visited our country and we must wonder whether this pattern is repeated in other parts of the world. Their current absence in this country seems to have corresponded with a long decline in numbers which may be linked to a reduction of species in whose nests the female cuckoo lays her eggs.
Most of us are aware of the cruel behaviour of the female cuckoo but it may be worth repeating for those who are unfamiliar with this aspect of bird life.
When the female cuckoo is ready to lay an egg, she selects the nest of another species, usually a small bird like a dunnock, meadow pipit or reed warbler. She is able to closely match the colouring of their eggs and so lays an egg in the host bird’s nest. However, she removes one of the eggs from the nest and swallows it. The host birds do not seem to notice this exchange.
The cuckoo’s egg will hatch after some twelve days or so,
when the blind cuckoo chick, acting instinctively, will manoeuvre itself into a position to heave the other eggs or chicks out of the nest. The foster parents will then feed the massive fast-growing cuckoo chick as if it was their own, and it will leave the nest after about nineteen days. However, the foster parents will continue to feed it for up to three weeks.
When here, the adult cuckoos usually leave this country about this time of year but the youngsters will remain for another month or so before leaving our shores for warmer places. Their instinct will guide them to their warm winter homes, but it means that if we hear the call of the cuckoo around this time of year, it may come from a juvenile.
In considering the decline of cuckoos, it is abundantly clear that the cuckoo itself is responsible for the reduction in numbers.
Bearing in mind that a female cuckoo can lay up to 25 eggs in one season, and that each of those eggs results in the death of several chicks of each host species, one cuckoo is responsible for the deaths of many small birds. For example, if a meadow pipit lays five eggs, all will be destroyed, either as an egg or a chick, by just one cuckoo egg in the nest.
If such a cuckoo lays 25 eggs in just one season, it may be solely responsible for the death of 125 chicks of the parent species. Multiply this by the number of female cuckoos in our country during a single season, and we have an immense loss of meadow pipits or other birds whose nests they use such as dunnocks and reed warblers.
This must result in a reduction of numbers of the host species and so the cuckoo is the architect of its own demise in this country. The more eggs it lays, the greater the number of lost members of the host species. I wonder whether the human race can learn anything from the cuckoo’s activities?
Another bird that has been conspicuous by its absence this summer is the house martin. Very similar to a swallow in its behaviour and appearance, this delightful small bird arrives on our shores as early as April and remains until this time of year, albeit sometimes remaining until October.
Unfortunately, its numbers have been declining during the past quarter of a century.
As the name suggests, these birds depend upon humans for their living accommodation, usually constructing their mud nests beneath the eaves of houses. Sometimes it means that householders must accept these birds as welcome guests but sadly (and illegally) some home owners will not co-operate with these visitors and may demolish such nests, regarding these small birds and their families as unwelcome.
On occasions, house martins will nest in cliffs and at times, they may re-use one of their old nests, after carrying out any necessary repairs and improvements. They produce four or five eggs per year and sometimes, may remain in this country until October.
I recall one family of house martins arriving at our home as late as September whereupon they started to build their nest and in fact produced a little brood who flew away before the weather became too cold.
Many householders confuse these birds with swallows but the house martin is the smaller of the two, it has short tail feathers, dark blue-black plumage and a white rump that is clearly seen in flight.
We must wonder whether the design of modern buildings has in anyway contributed to their decline in numbers, or whether there is another reason.
RECENTLY, wife and I spent time exploring parts of Wensleydale and arrived in Leyburn, famous for the size of its market place plus the historic Leyburn Shawl and Scarth Nick, both nearby.
It can also claim two royal Charters, one from Charles II and the other from James II, along with some spectacular views of the dale.
In addition, we found an astonishing new building along the A684 that leads to Harmby and eventually Bedale. This huge modern structure, built in stone and occupying a prime site, looks like a development of several smart houses, but in fact it is a single building.
From my very brief description, local readers will recognise it as the new home of Tennants Auctioneers. By chance, we arrived on a viewing day when rooms on all floors were open for us to inspect the bewildering array of items which would be offered at auction. In addition some other rooms at ground floor level looked like shop windows and there I found an astonishing part-collection of model railway engines and coaches.
The walls are host to some amazing works of art by renowned artists, there are rooms displaying antiques galore, sculptures, musical instruments, old maps and manuscripts and much, much more.
We had a splendid lunch in the restaurant, and there are rooms for hire by groups. Some of the forthcoming events include the Grimethorpe Colliery Band and the James Herriot Gala Dinner which celebrates the 100th birthday of our famous local author and vet.
Truly more than a saleroom!