For the last few weeks we’ve been able to enjoy the evocative sound of a cuckoo from our garden on the western edge of Otley. For the first time this century a male has taken up residence in the hedgerows that rise up to Eastwood from our house, and his far-carrying call has been drifting down to street level on still days, causing much excitement for those lucky enough to hear it.
Sadly, the distinctive vocalizations of the cuckoo have become much less frequently heard throughout Wharfedale in the last ten years, owing to a dramatic population decline that has seen the numbers of cuckoos recorded in England drop by a staggering 50%. Indeed, for most of the children playing on the street as the cuckoo sang his heart out, this was probably their first encounter with one our most celebrated summer migrants. And if the cuckoo’s population decline is not halted, it could be their last.
Thankfully, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is engaged in a ground-breaking project to track cuckoos summering in Britain all the way to their wintering grounds in West Africa, in the hope of finding some clues to the mysterious decline of the species. Using satellite technology and tiny tracking devices attached to the intrepid cuckoos, the team leading the project have – for the first time – been able to follow the movements of individual birds to an unprecedented level to detail. In a single year, more information has been gathered about cuckoo migration to and from England than was discovered in the past 100 years.
The epic migration of one male cuckoo highlights the formidable physical barriers that these birds must overcome in their year-long struggle for survival. His amazing 10,000- mile journey began after he was tagged in Norfolk last year, from where he headed to a staging post in northern Italy, before crossing the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert on his way to the Republic of Congo, where he spent the winter. His return journey to Norfolk involved stop-offs in two West African countries, before he began the long trek north to his English breeding grounds.
The BTO research on cuckoos is helping to pin-point areas throughout their summer and winter range where the species may be especially vulnerable to habitat destruction and changes in food availability. The hope is that an action plan can be devised to secure a brighter future for this iconic species.