IT is around this time that we listen for the cuckoo’s familiar cries. Down the centuries this has always been a sure sign that spring has arrived, but now this iconic bird is in serious decline.

Although there are many differing varieties of cuckoo throughout the world (except for the Antarctic), we consider our species as almost British, whereas it is merely a summer visitor.

Like so many other birds, it is migratory and spends its winters in Africa, only making its journey to England sometime during our spring.

An old tradition suggests it arrives on or near the feast day of St Tiburtius, which falls next Monday, April 14, and is sometimes known as Cuckoo Day.

There is an old saying that goes “The cuckoo sings from St Tibertius’s Day to St John’s Day” – the feast of St John is Midsummer Day, June 24.

The year’s first call of a cuckoo used to generate a lot of interest in rural England, a typical Yorkshire response being “When you hear the cuckoo shout, it’s time to plant your taties out”.

In Wales, however, it was believed unlucky to hear the cuckoo before April 6, but very lucky to hear it on April 28.

One widespread belief was that one’s luck depended upon the direction of the year’s first call of the cuckoo. If it came from the right or in front of the listener, it was a sign of good fortune, but if it came from either the left or from behind, then bad luck was sure to follow.

In Germany, a cuckoo’s call in the north was an omen of death while in Northumberland it was considered good luck if you heard the cuckoo’s first call while standing on grass or soft ground.

To hear it while standing on hard or barren ground was an ill omen, while in East Anglia, to see and hear a cuckoo calling from a rotten branch of a tree was a sure sign of death for the listener. In some parts of the country, it was considered a death omen if a cuckoo flew directly over anyone’s head.

To counter ill tidings, it was recommended that upon hearing the first cuckoo in dangerous places, one should roll in the grass as soon as the first note was heard.

This eliminated the risks. However, rolling in the grass as the cuckoo called was also thought to cure certain ailments such as lumbago and other aches and pains, and it was especially effective if the bird repeated its call during such rolling exercises. In some places, that repetition was regarded as a sure sign of relief from pain.

A love-sick girl with marriage on her mind also had rituals to follow upon hearing the first cuckoo of the year. She could calculate the years she would have to wait by counting the notes of the first cuckoo-call.

Four calls would mean a four-year wait, but she had an alternative method on hand. Later in the cuckoo-season, she could visit a cherry tree and shake it while calling “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cherry tree, how many years before I marry?”

The bird would then reply, but often repeating itself rather too many times which suggested a long wait for the right man to come along. Some people used that cherry tree routine to determine how long they would live.

Many of us are familiar with the old verses that surround cuckoos, one telling us its life history while in this country. It goes: The cuckoo sings in April, The cuckoo sings in May, The cuckoo sings at Midsummer, But not upon the day.

Probably the best known verse, which has several variations in differing localities of England, is this one: 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, go he must.

The cuckoo used to be heard, invariably calling from a place that sheltered it from view, but such calls are now much scarcer than even ten years ago. Catching sight of a cuckoo is almost a rare occasion – they are large birds, very similar to a hawk in appearance with a long tail, pointed wings and grey colouring.

Sadly, their lifestyle is not to our liking. The female lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, usually much smaller than she, and when the eggs are hatched by those unwitting foster mums, the foster mum’s eggs are thrown out of the nest by the infant cuckoo chick.

The birds usually selected for such fostering are meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers, and the cuckoo might lay a dozen eggs in different nests.

In spite of such a nasty reputation, we continue to welcome the cuckoo and invariably listen for its call as a sign of spring. And how many of us, hoping for riches, turn over the cash in our pockets or purses when we heard the year’s first call of the cuckoo?

Once bittern...

Continuing the theme of birds, my wife and I recently visited the RSPB nature reserve near Goole. It is known as Blacktoft Sands, and is on the south bank of the River Ouse near Ousefleet, just before the Ouse enters the Humber estuary.

Easy to locate, the carefully positioned hides provide first-rate views of marshlands and lagoons which are home to some fascinating birds The tidal reedbed is the largest in England and each lagoon seems to host its own particular species – we found one which had dozens of teals swimming upon it, another with wigeon, many with a variety of gulls, ducks, geese and waders and in all cases, we had unrestricted views of marsh harriers as they hunted their prey.

The reserve is noted for two other dramatic species – black and white avocets with their upward curving beaks are a regular sight, but we did not see any. It seems they emerge from the reeds early in the morning – we were too late, it was around noon when we arrived.

Perhaps the king of Blacktoft is the bittern. After being hunted as food, having their habitats destroyed as marshlands were drained, and then having their rare eggs targeted by collectors, there is no wonder their numbers declined almost to the point of extinction.

However, thanks to careful conservation, their numbers have increased and the familiar booming call, said by some to be like that of a bull, can be heard on many reserves, including Blacktoft Sands.

Although we remained for more than four hours, we failed to spot or hear a bittern. Clearly that is for another time.