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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Birds of Scotland

(Black-Billed Cuckoo by John James Audubon, 1785-1851,
French-American ornithologist and painter whose book
Birds of America is a remarkable catalogue of more than
700 native bird species)

By tradition, the song of the cuckoo heralds the true arrival of spring.


How sweet the first sound of the cuckoo’s note;
Whence is the magic pleasure of the sound?
How do we long recall the very tree,
Or bush, near which we stood, when on the ear
The unexpected note cuckoo! again,
And yet again, came down the budding vale!
It is the voice of spring among the trees;
It tells of lengthening days, of coming bloom;
It is the symphony of many a song.

~ James Grahame (1765-1811), Scottish poet

For many decades, until the 1940s, readers of The London Times would rush to announce the arrival of first cuckoo of the season.

This is one typical “first cuckoo” letter to the paper:

April 3, 1907


To the Editor of The Times.

Sir, — I wonder whether many of your readers have heard the cuckoo at this unusually early date? I heard him two or three times this afternoon, and I find that others in these parts heard him this morning. The Sussex legend that the cuckoo is let out of a basket by an old woman at Heathfield Fair — about the middle of April — marks the season when his arrival is commonly observed.

Yours faithfully,
W. J. Courthope
The Lodge, Wadhurst, Sussex, April 1

Not to be outdone, another Times reader staked his competing claim the next day:

April 4, 1907


To the editor of The Times.

Sir, — Referring to Mr. W. J. Courthope’s letter in your to-day’s issue, I can claim to have heard an earlier cuckoo.

On Sunday afternoon, outside the little village of Friday Street, in Surrey, I was delighted and surprised to hear the bird’s “wandering voice” quite close at hand. That was on March 31.

Yours, &c.
David A. Horner
Lisdale, Epsom, April 3

Sometimes, however, shenanigans were afoot, as revealed in a short article published February 6, 1948, in The Times:


At the end of January residents in the Northstead area of Scarborough were claiming to have heard the first cuckoo. But yesterday Mr Hezekiah Johnson, a corporation road-cleaner, said: “I wait until a crowd gathers at the Northstead bus-stop and then I go into the park nearby and do the cuckoo. They all take it in.” He added: “I used to do the nightingale when I had my teeth in.”

To hear the song of the cuckoo yourself, click on this link (you may have to cut and paste):

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