Let Nature Sing

Introducing the stars of Let Nature Sing

Over the next eight weeks, Adrian Thomas will guide us through the star soloists on our Let Nature Sing single. This star has one of the most recognisable sounds - the wonderful cuckoo.

Hear the cuckoo's call

First up in the spotlight, a smart-suited crooner with simple, laid-back vocals.

For those who know this song, it's an old favourite, with a beautifully breathy tone. This song is so recognisable that you can work out who the singer is, even if you have never heard it before, because he sings his own name.

It is just a two-note phrase, the first note slightly higher in pitch than the second, followed by a pause, before repeating the same pattern again and again: "ku koo ku koo ku koo…". This, of course, is the cuckoo.

It is a happy sound, relaxed, mesmerising, like a gentle heartbeat. It is a sound full of the promise of summer, of blue-skied days out in the countryside. He likes to sing from an elevated perch, such as the dead snag in a tree, or even telegraph wires. He can continue for a minute or so, perfectly paced, before he flies off to another perch.

The only bird you can really confuse it with is the 'ku KOO ku' of the collared dove, but that sounds distinctly bored rather than chilled out.

Hear the cuckoo's song

Cuckoo song in culture

So famous is the cuckoo’s song that there is even an old nursery rhyme about it:

The cuckoo comes in April
And sings his song in May.
In the middle of June
He changes his tune,
And in July he flies away.

It is very accurate. If you thought you heard a cuckoo in March, think again, for none of them had made it back from Africa by then, and no wonder – they love to eat furry caterpillars, and in our early spring there are too few of them for the cuckoo to survive.

What does the rhyme mean when it says he changes his tune? Well, by June he often loses some of his metronomic rhythm, his voice gaining an urgency now that midsummer is approaching, such that it might seem to break a little, singing “ku kwo” or even “ku ku kwo”.

In bygone days, children often learned the rhyme with female pronouns: “And sings her song in May.” Today we know that it is the male - and male only - that sings. But the female does have her own call, the most delightful whinnying bubble.

The cuckoo is perhaps the defining sounds of spring… or at least it used to be, for this is a bird in dire straits. Its numbers have fallen by over three quarters in the last 50 years. Those who like to listen for its return now often strain their ears in vain.

Common cuckoo Cuculus canorus, adult male perched on a post, Stow Maries, Essex
Reedbeds and pools at RSPB Lakenheath Fen nature reserve

Where to hear cuckoos

Your best chance is to head north and west, where fair numbers are spread thinly over larger marshes and uplands. This is where the female cuckoos seek out reed warblers and meadow pipits respectively, which will become the unwitting hosts for the cuckoos' eggs.

I made the recording on Let Nature Sing at RSPB Ynys-Hir, but I also recorded them as far afield as RSPB Abernethy in Scotland and RSPB Lakenheath in Suffolk, and there are many more RSPB reserves where they can still be found.

Want to learn more about bird song? Adrian’s new book and recordings, The RSPB Guide to Bird song, was released on 3 April 2019. Please buy through the RSPB shop, where all the profits go to nature conservation. 

Chart success!

Let Nature Sing was your opportunity to put the birds you care about on the main stage. Thanks to you, we reached #18 in the charts! Thank you for helping us make history. Don’t forget you can still buy/stream the song and show your support for nature.

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