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Cuckoos in Culture

For centuries the call of the Cuckoo has been a traditional herald of Spring

A very early manuscript from 1225 features a traditional round written in Middle English called the Cuckoo Song.  Summer is coming in when the cuckoo arrives.

Manuscript 1225 Cuckoo Song

Middle English

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

 Modern English

Summer is a coming in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;

Don't ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing

A Scottish poem “To the Cuckoo” by Michael Bruce (1746-1767) called the cuckoo the “messenger of Spring”

Hail, beauteous stranger of the grove!
   Thou messenger of Spring!
Now Heaven repairs thy rural seat,
   And woods thy welcome sing.

What time the daisy decks the green,
   Thy certain voice we hear:
Hast thou a star to guide thy path,
   Or mark the rolling year?

Delightful visitant, with thee
   I hail the time of flowers;
And hear the sound of music sweet
   From birds among the bowers.

The schoolboy, wandering through the wood,
   To pull the primrose gay,
Starts the new voice of Spring to hear,
   And imitates thy lay.

What time the pea puts on the bloom,
   Thou fliest thy vocal vale —
An annual guest, in other lands,
   Another Spring to hail.

Sweet bird! thy bower is ever green,
   Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song.
   No winter in thy year!

Alas! sweet bird! not so my fate;
   Dark scowling skys I see
Fast gathering round, and fraught with woe
   And ninety years to me.

O could I fly, I'd fly with thee!
   We'd make, with joyful wing,
Our annual visit o'er the globe—
   Companions of the Spring.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) evokes similar feelings in his poem “To the Cuckoo” where the Cuckoo is now the “darling of the Spring”.

O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear;
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.

Though babbling only to the Vale
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery;

The same whom in my school-boy days
I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.

To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.

And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
That golden time again.

O blessèd Bird! the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!

Cuckoos were an every-day part of life for people living in the countryside. In Loves Labours Lost (Act V scene II) Shakespeare has a cuckoo in every tree:

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws
And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

They were common enough and their calls so well known that they became a part of traditional nursery rhymes.

The Cuckoo

In April, come he will.
In May, he sings all day.
In June, he changes his tune.
In July, he prepares to fly.
In August, go he must.

All this has changed though. Cuckoos are disappearing from our countryside and scientists are busy trying to work out why. Find out what they've discovered on our Disappearing Cuckoos page.