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It was (and here me-thought I might esny
For the following curious and elaborate paper on the Cuckoo we are indebted to the pen of a clever lady.
And then she flies away ; says the Gloucestershire peasant, and this—like all our quaint old popular sayings—is a correct, if not an elegant, account of that of which it treats. It alludes, however, only to the old birds, which leave us at the end of June or in the beginning of July; but there is another version, which, with various verbal alterations carries on the story to the end of the scene, to the flight of the young birds, thus:
In spite of which generalisation, a stray young bird will, now and then, linger on until September, as we have ourselves occasionally seen. In April, however, “ Come she will," and her persistence has given rise in Wales to the following observation ;—" It is unfortunate to hear the cuckoo before the 6th of April, but you will have prosperity for the whole of the year if you first hear it on the 28th." This we can perfectly understand without the necessity of referring the notion to superstition, for the arrival of the bird before the first period named would indicate such an unnaturally forward spring, as must presage the late frosts and cruel blights, which invariably injure premature vegetation: while the very late day given as the day of “luck” shows the proverb to have originated in a land of cloud-arresting mountains, and of damp sea-borne breezes; this inference is strengthened by another Welsh distich
The first week of May
An assertion which would strike with amazement the "highfarming” and “ early-cropping” agriculturist of the present day. It is a somewhat curious coincidence that the earliest and latest days, noticed by the observant White of Selborne, as those of the cuckoo's arrival, were the 7th and 26th of April.
While on the subject of Cambrian sayings respecting this bird, we may mention that, partly from its very frequent occurrence in mountainous districts-partly, perhaps, from other causes—it has, in all ages, been a great favourite with the Welsh, who are very much averse to injuring it, and whose poetry and prose abound in pleasant allusions to the “Cuckoo with the cheerful note." To this circumstance we have heard ascribed the expression of Middleton, Thy sound is like the cuckoo, the Welsh ambassador.
Trick to Catch the Old One, Act. iv. scene 5.
But he evidently had no such meaning. We know that Walsch signifies, far-off, strange, wild, perhaps barbarous ; and, that even to this day the Italians are so designated in some parts of Germany: there can therefore be-as, if we remember rightly, was suggested by a correspondent of “Notes and Queries,”—no doubt that he thought of the bird as the strange ambassador from the far-off summerland, come to announce his heaven-sent message ; to tell us that “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone," —that the warm, bright summer days are nigh—and that the glad earth shall be once more decked with flowers. None we believe, can hear his first notes without in some measure regarding him as such an ambassador; and for our own part, though we watch for the early song of birds, though our heart leaps up with joy to welcome the first swallow which comes to us from over the sea, yet it remains for the cuckoo to call the warm glow of pleasure to our cheek. Shall we go even farther than this, and acknowledge that one of the many mysterious imaginings of childhood yet hangs around us (whence the idea arose we know not) and that now, as then, we cannot hear the voice of the cuckoo without some vague and momentary thought of ministering angels; angels, materialised perchance by childish imagination, yet shadowed forth in all the bright and holy purity of love.
When the dark night of the middle ages, which closed in upon the light of early science and knowledge was gradually dispersing its clouds before the sun of truth,
- and when men were beginning to read the book of nature without the interposition of human translators, they commenced certain speculations as to the destination of our migratory birds; and amongst other curious blunders, which their own sense and observation soon began to correct, we find them depositing the poor cuckoo in a decayed tree, or some such damp and ungenial place, and asserting that the summer bird lay sleeping like a dormouse all the winter long; in fact Browne, in his “ Pastorals,” makes him the companion of this little sleepy creature :
For in his hollowe trunk and perish'd graine,
Even the observant and nature-loving Willoughby actually
THE GREEKS AND THE CUCK00.
relates—though “on the credit of another"—that the servants of a gentleman having heated a stove in winter with some decayed logs of willow, were surprised to hear the
cry of "cuckoo ” from the fire. Three times the sound was repeated, and at length the affrighted serving-men drew out the logs, and seeing something move in the midst of one log, they opened it with a hatchet, and thrusting a hand into its centre, drew out a quantity of feathers, and finally a cuckoo“ brisk and lively," but wholly denuded of covering “and without any winter provision in its hole.” The story is crowned by the information that the boys of the family kept the bird alive for two years afterwards“ in the stove !" Doubtless these tales were founded on the late appearance of an occasional young bird, and on the reappearance of the tribe some days before the first warm breath of spring calls forth their song: for there are probably few amongst us who have not a sort of instinctive and unquestioned fancy that the cuckoo actually arrives in full song—that when we hear him first, he has but just alighted in our northern land!
The Greeks of old knew that this bird left even their sunny land for the warmer shores of Africa ; and in consequence of its taking flight about the same time as the turtle-dove, they called it “the turtle-leader.” A curious belief seems to have been prevalent amongst them that this bird was, at one period of its life, changed into a hawk! The ever watchful Aristotle, however, ventures to doubt the tale. “The cuckoo,” says he, “is said by some to change from a hawk, because, about the time of the cuckoo's appearance, that kind of hawk which it resembles disappears; but scarcely any hawk is to be seen except for a very few days after the cuckoo has begun to sing. The cuckoo is seen for a short time in summer, but disappears in winter. The hawk has talons on his feet, the cuckoo has not, neither is the cuckoo's head like that of the hawk; but in both these respects it resembles the dove,* and is like the hawk in colour only; the markings of the hawk, however, are somewhat like lines, those of the cuckoo like spots. In size and flight it very much resembles the smallest hawk, which is seldom to be seen at the same time with the cuckoo. But when both have been seen together, the hawk has been seen to eat the cuckoo, though birds of the same kind never act so to one another." Where the hawks so mysteriously hid themselves we will not pretend to ascertain, but the fable evidently arose from the colour and markings of the plumage of the young cuckoo, which is not unlike that of some of the hawk tribe ; as well as from a certain sketchy resemblance in the general outline of the two birds.
* It is almost needless to say how inapplicable to the head of the cuckoo is this comparison ; not only are the mandibles perfectly different from the straight beak of the dove tribe, but the nostril, the form of the cranium, the angle of the mouth, are all absolutely unlike ; while the wild and untamed, yet thoughtful, expression of the beautiful dark and yellow-rimmed eye, if it have not the fierceness of the hawk, at least bears no likeness to that of the dove,
The young cuckoo, which is scarcely seen on the wing before the old birds have left the country, has the whole of the head and the upper surface of the body barred with alternate shades of a darker and lighter reddish-brown; the quill-feathers are striped, and the tail-feathers slightly spotted along the centre with white; the under surface is of a dull white, and is “ closely barred,” says Yarrel, with dark brown; the irides are also brown, without displaying the exquisite golden circles which adorns them at an adult age. At the latter age, the bars upon the upper surface disappear, and the feathers become of a soft pinkish-grey, on which the sun gleams with a greenish tinge; the wings are of the same hue, but of a darker shade, and the tail is darker still, and slightly spotted with white; the throat, and the upper part of the breast, are of a paler grey, delicately shading off into a cinnamon-brown; and the remainder of the under surface is white, barred with a deep brownish-grey; while the most beautiful bit of colouring in the whole, is the inside of the mouth and throat; these parts—which form the angle of the mandibles, being placed very far back, seem constantly displayed-are of the brightest yet most delicate apricot colour, deepening in the lower part to an intense clear orange, through which shines a vermilion tint. The plumage of the adult female cuckoo closely resembles that of the male, but on her first appearance in this country her neck is slightly barred with brown.