Cuckoo

THE CUCKOO.

The cuckoos are mainly Oriental and very varied, although all show the slender form, long tail, and long curved beak that we see in our two American species, the black-billed and yellow-billed; the most aberrant one in our country is the queer, lizard-catching road runner of southern California. None of the cuckoos seems a good nest maker. The nests of our common ones are loose platforms of twigs, and both species often drop eggs in each other's cradles; but they, in common with almost all the other cuckoos of the world, do at least incubate their eggs and care for the nestlings, instead of leaving that task to some foster parent, as does the similar cuckoo of Europe. The most extraordinary feature of this parasitic habit is the fact that the cuckoo often, if not always, first lays its egg in any convenient place, and then, taking it in its beak, carries it to another bird's nest and puts the egg into it. This accounts for the frequent finding of a cuckoo's egg in nests into which so large a bird could not have crept.
Cuckoo  (Caculus canorus ) is as large as a pigeon. It has a gently-curved, deeply-cleft beak, long, pointed wings, and wedge-shaped, pointed tail. The outer toe can be directed forward as well as backward. American cuckoos hatch their own eggs. The Old World cuckoos are especially marked by the habit of leaving their eggs to be hatched by other birds. The spotted cuckoo of northern Europe lays four eggs in a nest, usually that of a crow. A small South African cuckoo, size of a sparrow is brilliantly colored. Australia has the large channel billed cuckoo, with its immense beak. The road-runner or chapparal cock of the desert plateaus of western United States feeds mainly on grasshoppers. In the West Indies and adjacent states is found the Ani, with high bill, and peculiar in that several females unite in building one nest, where all co-operate in hatching their eggs.

The cuckoo, with its never-wearied song, is the joyful harbinger of spring, and is heard with delight by old and young. It lives chiefly upon hairy caterpillars; and, as it is always feeding, we can justly include the cuckoo among the useful birds.

Cuckoo. Common, Or Grey Cuckoo. Gowk, Or Geck. Cog, of the Ancient British. Figure 14. [third row left]

Varioud bird eggs

Of the Cuculine  Birds, or Cuckoos, none are permanently resident in countries subject to severe winter cold. They feed mostly on insects, worms, or soft fruit, gliding amid the trees in search of their food in a peculiarly rapid and noiseless manner. In passing from branch to branch they generally leap; they do not climb like the Woodpeckers and Creepers, although they have much the same conformation of feet, the outer toe being directed backwards, as well as the first; this is called Zy-go-dac-ty-lous, a Greek word, signifying that the toes are yoked, or in pairs, two before and two behind. We have thought it well to introduce this queer word to our readers, lest they should stumble over it, as they are likely to do, in many works on Natural History which they may consult, and be frightened at its uncouth appearance; they will now know what is meant by zygodactylous, or dactytic  birds, such as Owls, Woodpeckers, Cuckoos, etc. But having explained thus much, we should go a step farther, and introduce also A-ni-so-dac-ty-lous, Greek again, meaning unequally yoked, that is, when there is a wider interval between one pair of toes than between the other.

Of Cuckoos the British Naturalist knows of three species; the Great Spotted Cuckoo, inhabiting chiefly the northern and western coasts of Africa, and only now and then paying a short visit to these northern climes; the Yellow-billed, or American Cuckoo, or Cowcow, as some call it, which is a more frequent, although still a rare visitant, and the Common Grey species, termed Cuculus canorus, that is, the Musical Cuckoo, with whose curious cry—cuck-oooo , most of our readers must be familiar. It may not be generally thought that there is much music in this monotonous , that is, single-toned call, but we are assured by a competent authority, that this is the only feathered performer who sings in strict accordance with musical numbers, its notes being the fifth and third of the diatonic scale. But be that as it may, the cry of the Cuckoo is extremely pleasant to most ears, when first heard, soon after the bird arrives in this country, which is sometimes about the middle of April, "in April, come he will," says the old proverb; we know that the fresh floral season of sunshine and country delights, has fairly set in, and all through the summer, to the time of his departure, in August or September, we love to listen to the far-away, dreamy kind of call, for it seems like an invitation to 'follow, follow,' some invisible leader, through greenwoods and flowery dingles, and into scenes of quietude and peace; then, too, there is a kind of mystery about it which excites the curiosity, for who ever sees the utterer of these dreamy sounds. We are inclined to say with Wordsworth,—

"Oh, Cuckoo, shall I call thee bird,

Or but a wandering voice."

And indeed the Cuckoo is a flying and feathered marvel altogether; we should fill this book were we to repeat all the strange tales that have been told about it, and by grave authorities too, from Aristotle of ancient Greece, to Dr. Jenner, and the rest of modern England. Amid all the disputations that have arisen upon the points of this bird's natural history, we can only clearly gather that it is a summer migrant, coming and going at the times just mentioned; that while with us it is to be found in all wooded and sheltered parts of the island, frequenting most parks and pasture-grounds, groves and thickets, it is more likely to be seen at early morning and evening, than during the broad daylight, and its cry has been heard at all hours of the night, proving it to be somewhat nocturnal in its habits,—nox, you know is the Latin for night, and from thence comes this word.

The Cuckoo lives almost entirely upon insects, devouring great numbers of hairy caterpillars. It makes no nest of its own, but lays a single egg in that of some other bird, or conveys it thither in its bill. Its eggs are small for the size of the bird, in colour white, with a greyish, or it may be a reddish tinge, with cinereous (that is, ashy) or grey brown speckles. How many of these the bird lays no one can tell, but it has the judgment, or compassion, or whatever it may be, to give the Pipit, Hedge Sparrow, Wagtail, or other small bird so favoured, the task of rearing but one of its young, which soon grows to be quite a monster in the eyes of its foster parent, and sometimes, says the old Greek, Aristotle, eats her up; but this is just a physical impossibility, and a most vile slander. Whether the intruder, as Dr. Jenner says, shovels  up with its broad back its fellow fledglings, to whom the nest rightfully belongs, and pitches them over the edge to die miserably of cold and starvation, while he gets the whole of the food brought by the provident mother, we cannot say, but may hope, for the credit of bird nature, that this too may be a mistake, if not a fable.

The Cuckoo is an elegantly-formed and agreeably-coloured bird, the prevailing tints of its plumage being a greenish grey, fading off into white, which is barred and mottled with silky brown; the large tail is spotted and edged with white. The male resembles the female; the young at first have bars of light red and olive brown about the upper parts.