Saturday, 16 June 2012

That's Just Cuckoo

Taxidermy specimen of a juvenile Cuckoo

                   Cuckoos feature largely in mythology and folklore. The Greek poet Hesiod, dating from about the seventh or eighth century BCE, mentions the cuckoo in his Works and Days.  
“When first the cuckoo uttereth his note amid the leaves of the oak and rejoiceth men over the limitless earth, then may Zeus rain on the third day and cease not, neither overpassing the hoof of an ox nor falling short thereof : so shall the late plower vie with the early”. [ll. 486-90] 
In effect, a ploughman may plough after three days of spring rain and vie with another who ploughed in the autumn. Spring is identified as when the cuckoo is first heard. 

Closer view of the Cuckoo

In Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, (from 414 BCE) two Athenians, Peisthetaerus (Mr Trustyfriend) and Euelpides (Mr Goodhope), persuade the birds to build an ideal city in the sky, between the Gods and Men and intercepting the communications between the two. The birds like this plan, so the city is founded and it is given the name Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Cloudcuckooland); the name has since come to be used for any overly idealistic plan or unrealistic situation. In The Birds Peisthetaerus says, 
And again of Egypt and all Phoenice the cuckoo was king: and whenever the cuckoo said 'cuckoo,' then all the Phoenicians would reap the wheat and barley in their plains,” [ll. 504-6]; 
again, identifying the sound of the cuckoo with the coming of spring. 

Similarly, the famous Cuckoo Song of about 1240 has: 
Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu, 
(Summer is a-coming in, Loudly sing cuckoo), 
[Harleian Ms. 978] 

Harleian Ms 978 - Sumer is Icumen In c.1240

(As an aside, this song also contains the line Bulluc sterteth, Bucke uerteth which the Transactions of the Philological Society (1868), with typical Victorian decorum, gives as ‘Bullock starteth, Buck verteth (i.e. seeks the green)’ – uerteth is now more usually translated as farteth – farts). 

An old English folk rhyme goes, 
The cuckoo comes in April, 
Sings a song in May, 
Then in June another tune, 
And then she flies away," 
(and a Lancashire proverb says, “The first cock of hay frights the Cuckoo away”). Speaking ornithologically, by the way, it is the cock bird that has the distinctive ‘cuckoo’ song; the hen bird’s cry is a rapid bubbling call. One folk tradition is that, on hearing the first call of the cuckoo, a maiden should take off her left shoe and in it she will find a hair of the same colour as that of her future husband. Another tradition is that whatever you are doing when you hear the first cuckoo of the year, then that is the thing you will do most during the rest of that year; another is that if you hear the bird when lying in bed, then illness or death will surely follow. 

The Cuckow from William Yarrell History of British Birds 1852

A Northern tradition is that, hearing that first cuckoo (or seeing the new moon), you should turn over the money in your pocket, and you should be careful to have some money ready for this, otherwise you will have none for the rest of the year. In some areas, it is believed that the cuckoo does not migrate; instead it turns into a sparrow hawk in the winter, (there is a little similarity between the two birds), and Aristotle mentions this belief in his History of Animals, Book VI, Chapter VII. The other habit for which the cuckoo is well known is that of laying its egg in the nest of another bird, (the first recorder of this was Edward Jenner, the father of immunology, a man whose work has “saved more lives than the work of any other man). 

Edward Jenner Observations on the Natural History of the Cuckoo 1788

The cuckoo will seek out the nest of a bird, often hedge sparrows or warblers, and either lay directly into the nest, or lay elsewhere and carry its egg in its beak to the nest. It may also remove eggs already in the nest, and the cuckoo’s egg may mimic the colour of those of the parasitised host. The young cuckoo hatchling will push out any remaining eggs, or other newly hatched birds, and will be solely fed by its adoptive parents. There can be few more pitiful sights in nature than that of a tiny warbler bringing food to an enormous great gowk that has murdered its brood and taken over its home.  

Baby Cuckoo dwarfs its adoptive parent

The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had it head bit off by it young.
Shakespeare King Lear Act 1 Scene iv

Gowk, by the way, comes from the Old English éac, cognate with Old Norse gaukr, an old name for the cuckoo, still used locally in the North and Scotland. The Catholicon Anglicum (1483) has Goke as an entry for ‘cuckoo’, and Morte Arthure of 1430-1440 has the line 'Thare galede the gowlte one greue fulle lowde.' [l. 927.]  
Gowk also means a foolish person, as does gawk, (think of a gawky teenager), and some say it may even be a forerunner of geek (think of a geeky teenager). On April Fool’s Day, it was the done thing to send someone on a gowk’s errand, bearing a message that read, “This is the first of Aprile, Hunt the gowk another mile”. 

Cuckoo from Thomas Bewick British Birds

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