This year’s early arrival was heard on the edge of the moorland at Bolton Abbey on Easter Monday, but more usually it has been in the vicinity of White Wells above Ilkley. Sadly, the wildfires there over the holiday weekend will have done serious damage to the nesting habitat of meadows pipits that would host the cuckoo’s eggs.
The double-note of the male which heralds the new season has often inspired composers. The best-known example comes at the conclusion of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and is played by two clarinets.
It also appears in one of the most popular works by the Bradford-born composer Frederick Delius, which is actually called On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and has been described as using musical instruments to mimic the sound of the English landscape.
The piece was written in 1912 by which time Delius was living in France, but I wonder where he first heard cuckoos. It certainly would not have been around his home in the Great Horton Road area of Bradford, a city which then bristled with smoking mill chimneys, but it is possible - even likely - that he was introduced to the cuckoo’s call when he and his family, in common with thousands of other Bradfordians, enjoyed spring picnics on Ilkley Moor or caught a train to Bolton Abbey.
In Delius’s work the cuckoo call is initially played on an oboe then repeated by violins and clarinets. There is never any doubt in the listener’s mind that these represent the cuckoo because it is the best known bird song in nature, and especially familiar because it sounds like it is being uttered by a human voice.
MORE RATCLIFFE: Robins are playing out soap opera’s in our own gardensRecently, though, conservationists have said the cuckoo is now more famous for being silent. By that they mean that many landscapes which once resounded to the calls of cuckoos from mid-April are devoid of the most quintessential sound of spring. Since the early 1980s, its numbers have declined by 65 per cent according to the British Trust for Ornithology.
The reasons are complex but one is that climate change has brought forward the nesting period of its host birds - principally meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers - by almost a week, thus altering the delicate synchronicity on which successful breeding depends. These species have also suffered an overall population decline.
Other reasons put forward are the reduced availability of caterpillars, the main cuckoo diet, and destruction of its over-wintering habitat in Africa.
Many urban dwellers miss hearing cuckoos if the earliest they can get out to the countryside is the bank holiday weekend in late May, since the calls seem less evident by then. They usually stop calling altogether by mid June.
By then, the main evidence of the cuckoo’s presence in upland areas like Bolton Abbey is the sight of a large chick vociferously demanding food from a much smaller and extremely frantic meadow pipit.