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As lazy as a cuckoo

It is that time of the year again when that most elusive of visitors, the cuckoo visits Ireland from Africa.

It will spend the summer months with us before returning to warmer climes to the south in the autumn.  Have you ever heard the phrase, “as a lazy as a cuckoo”?

Most people understand that the it has earned its reputation for laziness because it does not build its own nest and relies on other birds to hatch its eggs.

What most people do not know, however, is that it lays its eggs in the afternoon, unlike most other birds who tend to lay in the morning.

This might further reinforce the image of the cuckoo as a lazy creature.  The cuckoo is also, rather inaccurately associated with a lack of intelligence. So somebody who might be considered not “fully with it” might be classed as being ‘cuckoo’.

It might not go to the bother of building a nest but may have earned its reputation for laziness and lack of intelligence somewhat unfairly.

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Outside of its nest-building shortcomings, it shows many traits indicating its strong work ethic and intelligence in other areas.

Clever cuckoo

Did you know that:

  • It travels an astonishing 6,000 miles to central and Southern Africa when it has finished its breeding season in Europe?
  • An adult will lay its eggs in the nest of the bird species by which it was reared itself, which shows remarkable attention to detail and intelligence!
  • It has evolved a system of laying eggs that are almost identical to the eggs of its host.
  • A cuckoo chick will constantly beg for food from its foster parents and can grow to its full adult size in as little as two weeks.
  • It will follow the adult cuckoos to Africa in the Autumn and often return to the area in which it was hatched itself the following Spring.
  • The cuckoo chick has evolved a distinctly orange beak which stimulates the hunting instinct of the host birds. This ensures it is fed frequently and grows quickly.
  • Cuckoo chicks will work around the clock in their first few days of life to clear the host nest of eggs and baby chicks to make enough room for itself.
Hearing the cuckoo

Have you heard the cuckoo yet this year?

There is a story in Tipperary that if you hear the cuckoo close to St. Ruadhan’s feast day, April 15th, that one of two fates awaits you.

Should you hear it with your right ear, you are in for a year of good luck.  However, were you to hear it with your left ear, you are in for a year of bad luck.

I am assuming that you end up with an average year, luck-wise, should you hear it with both ears.

The cuckoo is considered an: ‘obligate brood parasitise’, and is the only bird in the world that behaves in such a manner.

It often lays its eggs in the nests of birds, which are much smaller than itself.

Consequently, when the cuckoo chick hatches, it quickly becomes a little too large for the nest of its foster parents and proceeds to throw out other unhatched eggs or tiny goslings.

Hosts of the cuckoo

The cuckoo is a prolific breeder in that a female can lay up to 20 eggs in the nests of different birds in a three month breeding season.

The main species that the cuckoo targets for its egg donations are the Meadow Pipit, Dunnock, Crow and the Reed Warbler. It will often remove one of the host eggs as it lays its own to fool the host bird into incubating the donated egg.

Despite its very clever strategy to get its eggs hatched, hosts reject up to 20% of cuckoo eggs.

There are estimated to be up to 4,000 breeding pairs that visit Ireland between April and August each year.

And as for its distinctive cuckoo sound, it is the male, which makes the distinctive “cuckoo” sound.  The female’s song is much different, often described as more of a low chuckle.

“The cuckoo comes in April. She sings her song in May. Then, in the middle of June, she changes her tune, and in July, she flies away,”!

One other interesting fact about is that it changes its song in mid-summer as the breeding season ends.

So, keep a listening ear for the cuckoo in the next while. It is a sure sign that summer is upon us, and try to hear it with your right ear if possible and get yourself a year of good luck in the process.

Image: JJ Harrison (

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