(Cuculus canorus, Linn.—Le Coucou, Buff.)
LENGTH fourteen inches; breadth twenty-five: the bill is black and somewhat bent; eyes yellow; inside of the mouth red; its head, neck, back, and wing coverts pale blue, darkest on the head and back, and palest on the fore part of the neck and rump; breast and belly white, elegantly crossed with wavy bars of black; the quill feathers are dusky, their inner webs marked with large oval white spots; the tail is long; the two middle feathers black, with white tips; the others dusky, marked with alternate spots of white on each side of the shaft: legs short and yellow; toes, two forward, two backward; the outer one capable of being directed forward or backward at pleasure; claws white.
The Cuckoo visits us early in the spring; the well known cry of the male is commonly heard about the middle of April, and ceases at the end of June: its stay is short, the old birds quitting this country early in July.
Whether Cuckoos pair is not known, but it is certain that they build no nest; and what is more extraordinary, the female deposits one of her eggs (of which she lays from four to six during the season) in the nest of some other bird, by whom it is hatched. The nest usually chosen for this purpose is that of the Titlark, Hedge Sparrow, Water Wagtail, Yellow-hammer, Green Linnet, or Whinchat, the two first being generally preferred.
We owe the first satisfactory account* of the singular economy of this bird, in the disposal of its egg, to Mr Edward Jenner, afterwards Dr Jenner,* the illustrious discoverer of Vaccination. The following being the result of repeated observations and experiments, accurately made by himself, we shall detail it as nearly as possible in his own words.
During the four or five days occupied by the Hedge Sparrow (or any other bird that happens to be selected) in laying, the Cuckoo contrives to deposit her egg among the rest, leaving the future care of it entirely to the Hedge Sparrow. This intrusion often occasions discomposure, for the Hedge Sparrow at intervals, whilst sitting, not only throws out some of her own eggs, but injures others in such a way, that they become addle, so that not more than two or three of them are hatched along with that of the Cuckoo, and what is very remarkable, she never throws out or injures the egg of the intruder. When she has disengaged the young Cuckoo and her own offspring from the shell, her young ones, and any of her eggs that remain unhatched, are soon turned out by the young Cuckoo, who then remains in full possession of the nest, and becomes the sole object of the care of its foster parents. The young birds are not previously killed, nor the eggs demolished, but all are left to perish together, either entangled in the bush which contains the nest, or lying on the ground near it. The mode of accomplishing the ejectment is curious: The Cuckoo very soon after being hatched, and consequently while it is yet blind, contrives with its rump and wings to get the Hedge Sparrow, or the egg, upon its back, and making a lodgement for its burden by elevating its elbows, clambers backwards with it up the side of the nest, till it reaches the top, where resting for a moment, it throws off its load with a jerk, and quite disengages it from the nest; after remaining a short time in this situation, and feeling about with the extremities of its wings, as if to be convinced that the business has been properly executed, it drops into the nest again. Nature seems to have provided, even in the formation of the Cuckoo, for the exercise of this peculiar instinct, for unlike other newly hatched birds, its back from the scapulę downwards, is very broad, with a considerable depression in the middle, as if for the purpose of giving a more secure lodgement to the egg, or the young bird, while the intruder is employed in removing either of them from the nest; when about twelve days old, this cavity is filled up, the back assumes the shape of nestling birds in general, and the disposition for turning out any bird or substance placed in the nest, entirely ceases. The smallness of the Cuckoo's egg is another circumstance deserving attention in this surprising transaction; in size and appearance, it differs little from the egg of the Skylark and Titlark, though the disparity of bulk of the birds be very great: In short, every thing conspires, as might be expected, to render perfect the design which is to be accomplished by the seemingly unnatural propensity of this bird.
When it happens, as it sometimes does, that two Cuckoo's eggs are deposited in the same nest, and are hatched along with those of the Hedge Sparrow's, a contest commences in a few hours between the Cuckoos for the possession of the nest. In one of these contests, which Dr Jenner had an opportunity of watching narrowly, and which was continued for more than a day, the combatants alternately appeared to have the advantage, each having carried the other several times nearly to the top of the nest, and then sunk down oppressed with the weight of its burthen, till at last, one which was somewhat superior in size, turned out the other, together with a young Hedge Sparrow, and an unhatched egg.
Young Cuckoos differ so much in plumage from the old, that they have sometimes been mistaken for a different species. In the young birds, the bill, legs, and tail, are nearly the same as those of the old; iris blue; throat, neck, breast, and belly, elegantly barred with dark brown, on a light ground; the back is lead grey, mixed with brown, and faintly barred with white; the tail feathers irregularly marked with black, light brown, and white, and tipped with white; legs yellow. They continue three weeks in the nest before they fly, and the foster parents feed them five weeks after this period. Their growth is very rapid. They migrate probably in succession, about the end of August, or beginning of September, and undergo their first moult during their absence.
The Cuckoo is said to be a fierce pugnacious bird. Its principal food consists of hairy caterpillars, also of grasshoppers, snails, May bugs, &c. of which it disgorges the hard parts after digestion, in the same manner as birds of prey. It also eats the eggs of other birds.*
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