In Praise of the Spring Cuckoo
By Wendy Hughes
Spring official began on the 20th March. However most people in Wales say that spring doesn’t officially arrive until the cuckoo announces itself with its distinctive spring-time calls of ‘coo-coooo, coo-coooo,’ as the male tries to woo the female. These birds are usually first heard in April, but for the last few years they seem to be arriving a little later than usual and, in fact, since the early 1980s, the number of cuckoos have been declining with Wales seeing around 50% less in the last 10 years. The decrease in numbers could be due to several things. Once the long journey from Southern Africa to our shores is complete the cuckoo has to contend with the increasing cold and wet springs, and the common use of pesticides have greatly reduced the availability of their favourite meal, the juicy hairy caterpillar.
In true traditional fashion there are many superstitions associated with the cuckoo, and people used to behave quite strangely on hearing the first call of the cuckoo. For example, in Caernarfonshire people would say, ‘How long shall I live or when shall I marry when hearing the cuckoo for the first time. They would then proceed to count the number of ‘coo-cooos’ given in reply to signify the number of years before the given event. In south Wales they say that wherever you hear the cuckoo first, there you will be in one year’s time.
There are also some omens surrounding April, some good, some bad, some amusing, some with a farming connection. April floods are supposed to carry away the frogs and their blood, whilst a windy April is good for hay and corn. If there are weeds in April, then the meadowlands and cornfields are guaranteed to flourish. Older Welsh folk will tell you that Cain was born on April 1st and if you are made a fool of on that day, you will be a tricked fool throughout the year. Another saying, amongst the Welsh farmers, is that if a cuckoo is seen before the leaves appear on the blackthorn, the year will be dry and unproductive. In North and mid-Wales they believe that if the cuckoo cries more than six times, it is sitting on a bewitched bough, and will only bring evil. However, if a child is born on the day the cuckoo is first heard, then that child will be lucky and truthful, and there is old Welsh rhyme that goes like this:
The cuckoo’s a fine bird: She sings as she flies;
She brings us good tidings. And tells us no lies.
She sucks little birds’ eggs
To make her voice clear,
And when she sings ‘Cuckoo!’ The summer is near.
Of course this is not true as it is the male that makes this distinctive sound. However the reference to bird’s eggs refers to the legend that the cuckoo eats the eggs of the hedge- sparrow, and puts her own eggs into the bird’s nest. The habit of laying a egg in the nest of another bird led to the idea in literary tradition that the cuckoo’s song poked fun at men whose wives had borne the child of another as Shakespeare described in Love’s Labour’s Lost:
The cuckoo then on every tree mock married men, For thus sings he ‘cuckoo’.
First cuckoo of spring
It’s not surprising, given its distinctive call that the cuckoo bird has a special place in our culture and folklore. In true Welsh tradition, there is also a charming, but sad, legend concerning the first cuckoo of spring, which would always arrive and sing on St Brynach’s Day, 7th April, in honour of the saint. St Brynach was an Irish nobleman who after being converted to Christianity came to south-west Wales and married the daughter of a chieftain. Around 540AD St Brynach founded a monastery at Nevern, near Newport in Pembrokeshire. He loved the peacefulness of the area and would often climb to the top of Carn Ingli in order to speak to the angels, and like St Francis of Assisi, St Brynach, had a special understanding of animals. it was thought that it was a religious duty amongst cuckoos that one of their number would be chosen every year to come to Nevern as a sign from God that rebirth and renewal were about to herald in the spring.
Anyone visiting Nevern today will be impressed by the tranquil village with its beautiful Norman church and imposing 11th century Celtic cross situated outside the church. It is believed that this was once the site where the saint founded his monastery in the 6th century. Every year, on the 7th April, for as long as people could remember, a cuckoo arrived in the morning and perched itself on the Celtic cross, and it became the custom that the priest would not say Mass on St Brynach’s Day until the cuckoo arrived.
One year the winter had been particularly long and hard, and everyone was looking forward to the first sign that spring was on its way. The ground had become frozen, there were no spring flowers lifting their heads, and no buds on the trees. Everything looked so colourless and lifeless. However the people decided that they would gather around the church and await the arrival of their little feathered messenger. It was bitterly cold, and as they waited they stamped their feet and blew into their cold hands to try and keep warm. By midday they were extremely cold, and as hunger and weariness set in, some of the congregation wanted to give up and go home. ‘We shall not see the cuckoo this year,’ they said amongst themselves.’ Some even urged the priest to forget about the cuckoo and go into church and celebrate Mass.
But the priest was adamant, ‘God will send us his sign of spring. He has never let us down. He knows how much St Brynach loved all creatures, and He will not forget us this year, or any other year. The cuckoo will arrive. We must be patient and wait.’
Slowly the light began to fade, soon it would be dark and people were muttering in groups wondering what to do. Suddenly, in the distance, the people heard a faint flutter of wings between the ancient yew trees that lined the pathway to the church door. ‘Alleluia, spring has arrived,’ said the priest, as he lifted his eyes heavenwards. All eyes turned towards the huge cross and as they watched the tired cuckoo fluttered unsteadily onto the top of St Brynach’s cross, everyone uttered quietly that spring had finally arrived.
The priest briefly gave his thanks to the bird, and ushered his congregation into the church to celebrate their much delayed Mass.
When they came out they looked towards the cross but could not see the cuckoo, until one person pointed to the crumbled body of the cuckoo slumped at the foot of the stone cross. It
Appeared the long journey from south Africa, over the snow covered mountain-tops of Europe, had been too much for the little bird, but it had kept its promise and bought them the sign they so badly needed – spring was indeed on its way.