Alfred Charles Smith.

The birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county online

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Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 26 of 53)
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now to extract the more important portions, and to enter some-
what minutely into the economy and life-history of this singular
bird. For perhaps of all the commoner species with which we
are surrounded in the summer, there is not one of whose habits
so much misconception is abroad ; certainly there is not one in
which everybody evinces such extraordinary interest. Let me
begin, then, by refuting and clearing out of the way some of the
popular errors about it.

It is even now a very common belief, handed down from
the time of Aristotle, that the Cuckoo changes in the
course of the summer into a hawk ; while Pliny,t who wrote
on Natural History, gravely asserted (and that assertion is
still upheld by many in these days) that the young Cuckoo
Vol. x., pp. 115-130. t Nat. Hist. (lib. x., cap. 9).

Common Cuckoo. 273

devours its young foster-brethren, and finally its most atten-
tive foster-parents; hence the Swedish proverb, c en otack-
sam gok/ implying 'an ungrateful fellow.'* Even Linnaeus
gave credence to this absurd slander, and in our own country
Shakespeare utters the same calumny. In the play of ' Henry IV/
he makes that monarch exclaim :

' And being fed by us, you used us so
As that ungentle gull, the Cuckoo's bird,
Useth the sparrow : did oppress our nest :
Grew by our feeding to so great a bulk
That even our love durst not come near your sight
For fear of swallowing : but with nimble wing,
We were constrained for safety's sake to fly.'

And again in ' King Lear/ the fool is made to say :

' The hedge sparrow fed the Cuckoo so long
That it had its head bit off by its young.'

Then, again, we are told that the fate of an individual for the cur-
rent year depends on the direction in which he first hears the cry
of the Cuckoo in the spring : if it proceeds from the north, for
instance, it is a lucky omen ; but if from the south, it portends
death.-f- And, again, it is universally considered unlucky to be
without money in your pocket on first hearing the welcome notes
of this bird.J

As the story of hedging in the Cuckoo, and so securing the
permanence of spring, has been attempted to be affiliated on the
moonrakers of Wilts, I must in common honesty quote from the
veracious chronicle entitled ' The Merry Tales of the Wise Men of
Gotham/ in which the following anecdote occurs : ' On a time the
men of Gotham would have pinned in the Cuckoo, whereby she
should sing all the year ; and in the midst of the town they had
a hedge made, round in compass, and they had got a Cuckow, and
put her into it, and said, " Sing here, and you shall lack neither
meat nor drink all the year." The Cuckow when she perceived

Golf, is no other than the old Saxon geac, and the Cuckoo is still often
called ' Gowk ' in some parts of England. [Seo Bosworth's 'Anglo-Saxon

f Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures/ vol. ii., p. 347.

| Naturalist for 1852, p. 84.


274 Cuculidce.

herself encompassed within the hedge, flew away. " A vengeance
on her!" said the wise men; "we made not our hedge high enough.'"*

Among other errors abroad with regard to this ill-used bird,
the English translators of the Bible included it in the list of un-
clean birds which the children of Israel were forbidden to eat
(Levit. xi. 16 ; Deut. xiv. 15). But Bochart, Gesenius and others
have long since proved that not the Cuckoo, but the sea-gull
was the species intended.t

These are but samples of the many superstitions current in our
day, and in our own county, with regard to the Cuckoo ; J and it
is with the hope of substituting in their stead the very interest-
ing and peculiar economy of its real life-history, that I propose
to enlarge upon it here at far greater length than I have bestowed
on other species.

With the exception of the Honey-buzzard (Buteo apivorus) it
is the largest of British insectivorous birds ; for its food consists of
insects of many sorts, but more particularly of the several species of
hairy caterpillars which abound in the early summer, and which
long-haired caterpillars are rejected by almost all birds, with the
exception of the Cuckoo : so that it has been thought by some
that the reason why that bird leaves this country so early, is the
failure by the middle of July of its favourite food. I may observe,
too, that it is the male bird alone which gives utterance of the
peculiar note which we hail so gladly as an announcement of
spring, though, among other popular errors, the following old
couplet attributes the song to the female: \\

1 The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, and sings as she flies ;
She brings us good tidings, and tells us no lies.'

Possibly, however, this may be only the indiscriminate use of the
masculine and feminine pronoun so common in Wiltshire : I am
bound, too, in honesty to add, that the well-known cry of the
Cuckoo has been declared by some naturalists (though I think

* Sharpens Magazine, vol. x., p. 6.
f Smith's ' Dictionary of the Bible.'
J Jesse's ' Gleanings of Natural History,' p. 125.
Wood's ' Illustrated Natural History,' vol. ii., p. 574.
. || Naturalist for 1852, p. 84.

Common Cuckoo. 275

erroneously) to be common to both sexes.* Lastly, I will repeat
that the female has that strange peculiarity of depositing her
eggs singly in the nests of other species, which she selects as suit-
able foster-parents to her own young : a peculiarity not shared in
by any others of our British birds, though by no means unknown
among the feathered tribes of other countries the Cowbird, for
example, of America, j- which belongs to the Starling tribe, several
species of the African Cuckoos, and others. It is from this last
eccentricity of conduct that so many strange and unlooked-for
habits of the Cuckoo take their rise. Let us examine them one by
one ; but first let me earnestly protest against the unmeaning out-
cry and charge of unnatural, unfeeling conduct often preferred
against the Cuckoo,! as if she did not follow out the instincts of
her nature as truly as every other bird ; and as if there was not
some good and sufficient reason (though we may be unable to
fathom it) why some species delegate the care of their young to
other birds : rather, I think, should we admire the wonderful
instinct which leads them to select, as foster-parents, those species
only whose feeding is similar to their own, and so would provide
their young with suitable nourishment; and that dexterity which
enables them to insert their eggs amongst others, just at the right
moment when the foster-parent is preparing to sit.

And here I beg to state without hesitation that never by any
possibility does our British Cuckoo either build a nest of her own
or incubate her eggs on the ground. We hear constant tales of
such occurrences : every year our periodicals and newspapers con-
tain statements of such marvellous incidents, which would be
marvellous indeed if true ; but I venture to assert most positively,
without fear of contradiction, that all such stones have originated
from some error : and either the common Night-jar,|| of nearly the

* Magazine of Natural History, vol. viii., pp. 329-382. Naturalist for
1851, pp. 11, 172.

t Wilson's 'American Ornithology,' vol. ii., p. 162.

Bishop Stanley's ' Familiar History of Birds,'' vol. ii., p. 80.

Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne,' Letter iv.

|| Montagu's Supplement to ' Ornithological Dictionary/ vol. ii. Rennie's-
' Architecture of Birds,' p. 380. G. White's ' Selborne,' Letter vii.


276 Cuculidce.

same size, fluttering away from her marbled eggs at the root of
an old oak, or some other bird, has been mistaken for the Cuckoo,
which never, in any single instance, has been known to sit on her
own eggs.

The Cuckoo then, houseless and vagabond though she is, and the
veritable 'gipsy of the feathered tribes,' as she has been styled,
soon after her arrival here in the spring, begins to busy herself no
less than other birds in making preparations for her future
progeny ; but instead of preparing a nest, as other birds do, her
occupation is to scour the hedgerows and plantations, and watch
the busy nestmakers with more eager eye than any schoolboy ;*
observing day by day the progress made, and anxiously selecting
those which may be most convenient for her purpose. Into these
nests it is not her habit to intrude herself for the purpose of lay-
ing her egg, as all other birds do ; indeed, from her superior size
in proportion to the nest, such a course would be generally im-
possible : but she lays her egg on the ground, and then she takes
it in her beak,f and gently deposits it in the nest she has chosen.
And that the Cuckoo does thus avail herself of her beak to place
her eggs in nests which otherwise would have been inaccessible to
her, is not only d priori established from those cases where no
other means were possible, as in certain domed nests with entrance
holes at the side only, or those which are laid in the holes of trees,
as for instance those of the wren, the redstart and others ; but we
have a very interesting account from a charcoal-burner, in the
forest of Thuringer, who happened to be in his rude woodman's
hut in the forest, when a Cuckoo (which he had long observed fly-
ing about in the neighbourhood) flew into the hut, not perceiving
the owner, perched upon a bench near the entrance, laid an egg,
then seized it in her beak, and placed it in a wren's nest which
was built against the inner side of the hut, while the man looked
on in amazement, and soon after related the ' wonder' to the

Rennie's Architecture of Birds,' p. 374.

f Zoologist, 3145, 7757, 7935, 8165. Hewitson's ' Eggs of British Birds,'
vol. i., p. 205. Temminck's ' Manual d'Ornithologie,' vol. i., p. 384. Rennie's
' Architecture of Birds,' p. 378.

Common Cuckoo. 277

German naturalist who recorded the event. But I believe this to
be her invariable method, whether the small nest of the foster-
parent be accessible to her or no : and then again, this habit of -
taking the egg in her beak, and so depositing it in the chosen nest,
considered in conjunction with the similarity of her egg to that of
several species of small birds as detailed farther on, will readily
account for the frequent assertion on the part of eye-witnesses of
the Cuckoo eating the eggs of small birds, which they trium-
phantly declare they have themselves seen between the mandibles
of that bird's beak.*

It is not until after an interval of several days that the Cuckoo
lays another egg in the same manner and then deposits it in another
nest which she has previously selected ; and so on till her whole
complement of four or five or six eggs is laid.-|- But never on any
occasion does she lay two eggs in the same nest ; so that
although it is true that two Cuckoo's eggs have been sometimes
found in the same nest, these were without doubt from different
parent birds, and by no means the eggs of the same individual^

But now if the egg of the Cuckoo was at all proportioned to the
size of the bird, it would not only at once attract the attention
and alarm of the foster-parent, but it would be impossible for so
diminutive a nurse to brood over and hatch it ; and therefore
Nature, who never does anything by halves, but provides for every
emergency, has given a strange disproportion in the egg of the
bird to the size of the parent Cuckoo (the egg of the Cuckoo
being no larger than that of the Lark, though the relative size
of the two birds is as four to one) a disproportion, however, the
necessity for which is most apparent, if the little foster-parent is
to be duped into believing the egg of the intruder to be her own.

The Cuckoo then, having laid her eggs of comparatively dimi-

Naturalist for 1851, p. 162 ; for 1852, p. 33.

f Colonel Montagu dissected a Cuckoo which had in her four or five eggs
( { Ornith. Diet.'). Mr. Rennie thinks it lays a second time. Blumenbach says
she lays six eggs in the spring from time to time. [Jesse's ' Gleanings in
Natural History,' p. 125.] Naturalist for 1851, p. 162.

+ Zoologist, 8823, 9325. YarreU's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 192. Mon-
tagu's ' Ornith. Diet.,' Introduction, p. ix.

Yarrell in loco, vol. ii., p. 191. Bewick, vol. i., p. 108

278 Cuculidce.

nutive size, and entrusted each to the charge of carefully selected
foster-parents, is by many supposed to leave them to their fate,
and to take no further interest in the matter.* But this does not
seem to be the case.f On the contrary (and for this I have the
high authority of Dr. Gray, of the British Museum), the Cuckoo
has been observed to frequent the neighbourhood, and watch near
the nest during the whole period of incubation ; and then when
the eggs are hatched, whether it is the parent Cuckoo,} as
Mr. Waterton stoutly maintained, or whether it is the young one,
as Dr. Jenner || and others as positively declared, which removes
from the nest the young Cuckoo's foster-brethren and any un-
hatched eggs there may be, is a question still warmly disputed.

Whether or no there are any other offices which the parent
Cuckoo undertakes for its young, I will not venture to affirm ;
though it is the opinion of some experienced naturalists that she
really feels an anxiety for them not less than that shown by
other birds :1T while others maintain that she has occasionally,
though very exceptionally, been known to feed her own young, of
which several convincing proofs have been adduced ;** and others
again declare that she sometimes even takes the young under her
protection, when they are sufficiently fledged to leave the nest.-f~f-
But be that as it may, towards the end of July the old birds are
preparing to migrate, and the male has already changed his note
to that stammering repetition of the first syllable which (as all
observers know) heralds the cessation of his so-called song; and
which an old writer, John Hay ward, who flourished about A.D.
1580, has described in the following quaint but very graphic
rhymes :

c Zoologist, p. 1638.

t Ibis, vol. iv., p. 384. Wood's ' Illustrated Natural History,' vol. ii., p. 572.

j Zoologist, 2589, 2603, 4895, 6676, 8166, 8195, 8235, 8681. Jesse's ' Glean-
ings in Natural History,' p. 123.

' Essays on Natural History,' first series, p. 228.

|| * Philosophical Transactions,' vol. Ixxviii.

If Wood's ' Illustrated Natural History, 1 vol. ii., p. 572. Naturalist for
1851, pp. 67, 162.

** Naturalist for 1851, p. 11.

tt Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 197. Naturalist for 1851, p. 233.

Common Cuckoo. 279

' In April the Cuckoo can sing her song by rote.
In June of ttimes she cannot sing a note.
At first, koo ; koo ; koo ; sings till can she do
At last, kooke, kooke, kooke, kooke ; six kookes to pne koo. 3

By the beginning of August, then, the parent Cuckoos are gone
southwards ; but the young Cuckoo is notoriously a tedious nurse-
ling, and indeed, having to grow from the inmate of a very small
eggshell to a bird of considerable dimensions, requires time for
such development, and taxes to a very large extent the powers as
well as the assiduity of its foster-parents : by degrees this over-
grown infant not only fills the little nest which was never meant
for such a monster, but is forced to vacate it, and sits perched
on the edge, while the foster-parents, unable to reach up to it from
below, alight on its back in order to feed it.* It is at this period
of its existence that the young Cuckoo is said to possess, or to
acquire for a time, the note of its foster-parents,t whatever it may
happen to be ; but this point in its history requires corroboration,
as, though asserted by many, it has never yet been satisfactorily
settled. And then again, when they have at length attained their
full size, the young Cuckoos, though left to their own devices,
and without their elders for their guides, as all other migratory
birds have, follow towards the end of September in the track
of their parents which have gone long before, and migrate to a
warmer clime ; though what instinct teaches them when to go,
and whither to bend their course, who shall say ? Indeed, to my
mind this is one of the most astonishing points in their life-
history which we have yet touched upon.

And now I come to the most remarkable peculiarity of all ; and
indeed, amongst these so many anomalies which we have seen to
belong to this extraordinary bird (and the more one studies its
habits, the more numerous and the more apparent do they
become), there is nothing so strange or indeed so startling as the
opinion put forth, in Germany by Dr. Baldamus, and afterwards

* Gardener's Chronicle, 1851, p. 469. Magazine of Natural History, vol. ix.,
p. 638. Naturalist, 1851, p. 233 ; 1852, p. 33.

t Thompson's ' Natural History of Ireland,' vol. i., p. 361.

280 Cuculidw.

followed up and demonstrated by proofs of apparently the most
satisfactory character, on the part of himself and his friends,
that the eggs of the Cuckoo, which she lays one by one singly in
the nests of other birds, are somewhat similar in colour to the
eggs of those birds whose nests she selects* And thus it is by no
means an uncommon occurrence to see the egg of the Cuckoo
taken from a hedge-sparrow's nest, partaking of a greenish-blue
tinge ; another from the nest of a robin, of a reddish hue ; another
from a pipit's nest, of a brownish colour; and so on through
the twenty or thirty species in whose nests the egg of the
Cuckoo has been found. This was without doubt a very startling,
bold statement, and it evoked, as might be expected, no small
amount of opposition and ridicule when first it was propounded.
To my mind, however, it seemed a very beautiful idea, well
worthy of the most careful examination, so I spared no pains in
investigating it. And to this end I translated the lengthy article
of Dr. Baldamus,f and printed it in the Zoologist ; and I now
proceed to give a short re'sumd of that article.

Dr. Baldamus begins his treatise by calling attention to the
great variety in colouring as well as in marking in a collection
of Cuckoos' eggs, and the astonishing resemblance these eggs
severally bear to the eggs of a variety of small birds usually
chosen as the foster-parents of Cuckoos : a fact which he says was
well known to the great ornithologists and oologists of Germany,
including Naurnann, Thienemann, Brehm, Gloger, von Homeyer
and others ; and I may add that this point was equally well known
to our British ornithologists as well.J But Dr. Baldamus seems to
have been the first to suspect that at the root of this striking
phenomenon there was a fixed law, perhaps a law which might be
discoverable; and his suspicions in this direction having been
aroused, he proceeded to pay diligent attention to the subject.
To this end he not only made most careful personal observations,

Zoologist for 1853, p. 3988.

t ' Neue Beitrage zur Fortpflanzungsgeschichte des Europaischen Kukkuks
(Cuculus canorus), von E. Baldamus/ Naumannia, 1853, pp. 307-326.
J "Wood's * Illustrated Natural History,' vol. ii., p. 572.

Common Cuckoo. 281

but by means of oological correspondents in various parts of
Germany collected a large series of facts bearing upon the matter
which were convincing to his own mind : convictions which seem
to have been shared in by many of the leading ornithologists of
Germany. I will not weary the patience of my readers by taking
them through the several instances which Dr. Baldamus details >
but pass on at once to the results he arrived at, merely remark-
ing, by the way, that he followed up his investigations with such
earnest zeal, that when he wrote his paper he had before him no
less than one hundred Cuckoos' eggs, special care being taken to
ascertain accurately from the nest of what particular species
every one of these eggs was taken.

The first thing which Dr. Baldamus established to his own
satisfaction, by means of these repeated observations, was, that
the Cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of no less than thirty-seven
species, including not only every species of Chat, Warbler,
Wagtail, Pipit, and Lark, but even exceptionally certain of the
grain-eating Finches and Buntings : these exceptions being
doubtless in cases only where the Cuckoo was deprived, by some
accident, of the nest she had selected for her egg, and which,
when ready to be laid, she was obliged to consign to the care of
the best nurse she could find at short notice. To this seeming
inconsistency on the part of the parent bird I may however add,
that grain- eating species have been known to bring up young
Cuckoos ; and the explanation is, that even the hard-billed
birds are accustomed to feed their young, at any rate at first,
with insects.

From the thirty-seven species alluded to above, which have been
ascertained to act as foster parents of the young Cuckoo, Dr.
Baldamus enumerates no less than twenty-eight, to whose several
eggs he affirms the egg of the Cuckoo will bear some similarity in
colouring ; and this he then proceeds to prove from the specimens
lying before him, and which (as I before remarked) are all care-
fully authenticated, in regard to the nests from which they were
taken. All these specimens he examines singly, and describes
their colouring, as nearly all partaking, in a greater or less degree,

282 Cuculidce.

of the character, ground colour, and markings of the eggs of the
species in whose nests they were severally laid : while some are
so extremely similar that but for the grain* or texture of the
shell and certain characteristic specks, it would be difficult to
distinguish them apart. The exceptions to this general rule
are those laid in the nests of corn-eating species, and our author
adds that it would be extraordinary indeed if the Cuckoo's
eggs should resemble the eggs of these exceptional and never
intended foster-parents.

' The fact then' (says Dr. Baldamus) ' is quite established and
beyond all doubt, that there are Cuckoos' eggs which both in
colour and in marking are very like the eggs of those species in
whose nests they are generally laid :' and then he proceeds to
argue that Nature, who never trifles, nor acts without purpose,
has plainly given the parent Cuckoo this faculty in order to
facilitate the continuance of the species under peculiar conditions,
for (he well remarks) had this not been so, we are driven to the
alternative that the Warblers and others, which generally recog-
nise so easily all strange eggs, casting them out of the nest,t or
else deserting it, in regard to the Cuckoo's eggs are quite blind,
and cannot recognise the red eggs among their green clutches,:}:
and vice versa. Therefore (continues our author) I do not
hesitate to set forth, as a law of nature, that the eggs of the
Cuckoo are in a very considerable degree coloured and marked
like the eggs of those birds in whose nests they are about to be laid,
in order that they might the less easily be recognised by the
foster-parents as substituted.

* ' Das Kornj the German word exactly answering to our English idiom
'grain.' The grain or texture of the shell is too often overlooked by
oologists, but amongst the very similar eggs of some species, as more par-
ticularly among the Duck tribe, this is one very important means of identifi-
cation, more especially when the egg is placed under a low magnifying

t Montagu's ' Ornith. Diet.,' Introduction, p. iv.

J Or ' loiters ' as our Wiltshire rustics say : ' gelege ' in German.

It is worthy of remark, that whereas it has been often asserted that the
egg of the Cuckoo is by no means found in any proportion to the number of
old birds (for it is not a rare species, and every female would seem to lay

Common Cuckoo. 283

The next question examined is c whether the same hen Cuckoo
lays eggs of the same colour and markings only, and is so
limited to the nests of but one species ? or else, does the same
individual lay eggs of different colour and markings, according to
the character of the eggs amongst which her own will be
intruded ?' Both these theories have their advocates ; those in
favour of the last view advancing the hypothesis that the sight of
the eggs lying in the nest has such an influence on the hen which
is just about to lay, that the egg which is ready to be laid assumes
the colour and markings of those before her ; and for this, phy-
siological reasons are adduced, and analogies, not forgetting the
well-known and successful experiments of the patriarch Jacob.*
But Dr. Baldamus rejects this opinion, and contends for the
other view (viz. that the same Cuckoo lays eggs of one colour
and markings only, and so is limited to the nests of but one

Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 26 of 53)