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The cry of cuckoo is, as is well known, the note of the male only, that of the female being a harsh screaming chatter. The custom of calling the bird “she” is, however, everywhere persisted in, at any rate amongst the uneducated, and in the many popular rhymes on the subject this peculiarity may be noticed. In fact, to alter this mode of speaking would be nearly as great a solecism as to call the redbreast she or the raven he.
The cuckoo, though, in its general appearance, even in its babits, unlike the scansores or climbers, is yet marked as one of this family by the formation of its yellow feet; two of the toes being placed behind, and two in front; the outer toe of each foot being movable, so that it may be brought half-way forward (forming a right angle with the front toes), or placed quite backwards, This power, which is termed “
versatile,” shows the bird to be, as in reality it is, the “ least developed” of the scansorial tribe, and the farthest removed from the original type.*
Reference to the anatomical structure of the bird brings us to the most prominent feature in its natural history; we, of course, allude to its habit of depositing its egg or eggs in the nest of some other and smaller bird. This peculiarity has been so amply dwelt upon by naturalists, and has, as Mr. Swainson justly observes, absorbed so much of popular interest,” that we must pass lightly over the subject; yet we cannot wholly leave it without mentioning that several recent observers have concluded that the mother bird is not so deficient in affection as may at first sight appear; but that she carefully and assiduously watches over the welfare of her children from the very moment in which her eggs are laid. For the love we bear the bird, we would gladly have this supposition established, which we are constrained to acknowledge is not yet the case. As the cuckoo's egg has been found in the domed nest of a wren, it has been concluded that it must have been conveyed there by the cuckoo with its wide mouth after it was laid ; an idea strengthened by the fact of the African cuckoo, as affirmed by Le Vaillant, having been known to perform a similar feat; thus bringing within the limits of possibility the acceptance of the well known nursery invitation addressed to the
* See Swainson's “ Memoirs of the Cuculidæ."
In the cherry tree; to
Lay an egg
Evidence has been offered to show that the apparent negligence of the mother proceeds from her food not passing into a crop, as is the case with other birds, but immediately into the stomach; a circumstance which, of course, by altering her internal economy, would alter her instinctive habits. We have neither the means of, nor the anatomical knowledge necessary for, verifying this; but we know, from experience, that when holding a cuckoo in the hand, an accidental and most gentle pressure on the abdomen produced a startling scream which still rings in our
We must, however, remark parenthetically, that this assertion does not seem to accord with the acknowledged presence of a gizzard.
Much has been said on the ejectment, by the young cuckoo, of its fellow nestlings, for not a rival will it brook in its adopted home; and it is well that it should be so, for the little foster-mother would undoubtedly fall a victim to an endeavour to provide both her own offspring and her voracious charge with food. And that the attempt would be persisted in while life and strength remained, no thinking mind can for one moment question. The act of destruction appears to be performed by insinuating the furrowed beak beneath the other birds, and so raising them to the edge of the nest and jerking them over. Colonel Montagu, having taken a nest containing a young cuckoo, continually replaced a little swallow in it, as it was continually thrown out by the cuckoo, until the end of the sixth day, when the wearied bird permitted it to remain unmolested. It is remarkable that, by about the twelfth day, this furrow is completely filled up. Probably the circumstance of the nestling cuckoo being always found alone, induced the idea—not yet extinct-taught us in our nursery days, that
before laying her egg, the mother-bird sucks such eggs as she may find already in the nest
The cuckoo's a fine bird,
Pliny mentions the belief that, when the cuckoo came to maturity, it devoured the bird which had reared it; and our own Shakespeare says
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
If we watch the movements of the two birds when the younger is being fed, we cannot much wonder at the notion, for when its great mouth is opened, the diminutive nurse places her own head so far within its precincts that it has the exact appearance of a voluntary surrender to decapitation. A sister of our own, who daily watched a young cuckoo which came to sun itself on the garden palings, saw that as it always bent its head upwards to receive its food, its careful guardian would frequently perch on its back, and so feed it over its shoulder. No one who has not so watched the birds, can tell the delight afforded by the consideration of the genuine motherly, yet somewhat over-anxious business of the happy and self-forgetting foster-mother, who never for a moment appears to recollect that her awkward nurseling is other than her own loved child.
Whether the cuckoo feeds at all on vegetable substances, in its wild state, we cannot say; but Von Schauroth found cherries very acceptable to it in captivity. It is most valuable as a consumer of insects, more especially of the larger and more destructive of the larvæ of various moths. Connected with the subject of its food, is the very curious circumstance of the interior of its stomach being sometimes found clothed with hairs.
There are also in the Hunterian museum, in the Royal College of Surgeons, balls composed of fine hairs, and taken from the stomachs of cuckoos ; while Hunter himself, says Broderip, observed that at certain seasons, when the birds feed on caterpillars, their gizzards are full of hairs ; the cuds of which he found to be inserted in the horny coat with which they are lined, while the remaining portion was laid, flat on its surface, and in one direction. It remained, however, for Owen to prove, by microscopic examination of their structure, that these were the hairs of the larvæ of the beautiful tiger-moth.
Hitherto we have spoken only of our common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), but the tribe contains an immense number of species, which are very widely dispersed over the earth. Of these we believe that but one other kind, the yellow-billed, or American cuckoo, has been observed in Britain ; and that but rarely. One of the most interesting of these birds is the honey-guide or honey.jar of the Cape; the C. indicator of Gruelin, which, feeding upon honey, announces its discovery of a swarm of bees by its wellknown cry, at the sound of which the honey hunters follow its flight and mark it down to some hollow tree; on which they commence their attack, to the great satisfaction of the bird, who is well aware that their fragmentary spoils will supply him with a sufficient meal. Sparrman tells us that this bird is considered as almost sacred by the colonists, who suffer no person to injure or to kill it.
To an Englishman there is something rather unnatural in the idea of eating a cuckoo, but the Italians eat it; as did their ancestors in the time of Pliny, who declares that no bird equals a young cuckoo just able to fly : so also thought the Greeks in the days of Aristotle. As a remedial agent too it was prized of yore, being wrapped, says Pliny, in the skin of a hare and applied to sick people in order to make them sleep. While Rodeletius prescribes its ashes as good for disorders of the stomach. In a different way also the cuckoo attained high honours, for the celebrated Argolian statue of Juno bore a sceptre on which reposed a cuckoo, emblematic of the transformation of Jove himself.
In our own land it is believed that whatever you may be employed upon when you first hear the cry of “cuckoo," will be your principal occupation through the ensuing
STRANGE SITUATIONS OF BIRDS' NESTS.
year; and again, that if there be money in your pocket at this time you will not lack it for the next twelve months ; a highly probable circumstance amongst our agricultural ancestors who originated all these quaint old sayings, and who were frequently in the very depths of poverty after a long winter.
In the commencement of this paper allusion is made to the change which takes place in the cry of the cuckoo : its syllabled note is prolonged to cuc-cuckoo, and not unfrequently ends in a mere repetition of the first syllable, cuc-cuc-cuc. It is then about to comply with the request so pathetically urged by Chaucer:
Now, good cuckowe, goe somewhere away.
And we will therefore take leave of it and of our readers ; merely adding the injunction of the old Welsh proverb;
“ When thou hearest the cuckoo cry, take timely heed to thy ways; for it may be that he warns thee to a straighter line of duty."
STRANGE SITUATIONS OF BIRDS' NESTS. “ The interior of a skull as well as the interior of a magpie's nest, were (however singular) at least better suited to the sedentary life of a bird when sitting upon her eggs, than the noisy work-shop of a brass-founder's factory; yet, in such an unlooked-for place did a female water-wagtail once build her nest, within a foot of the wheel of a lathe, in the midst of the din of hammerers and braziers. There unmolested and unconcerned she hatched four young ones. The cock not reconciled to such a scene, instead of taking his part in feeding the nestlings, carried the food he collected to a spot on the roof, where he left it till the hen fetched it when wanted. She became quite familiar with the men who were constantly employed in the shop, and flew in and out without showing signs of fear; but, if a stranger approached she immediately flew off her nest, or if absent, would not return till he had departed.
“We once found a wagtail's nest under the half-deck of a pleasure-boat, which was anchored on a sheet of water. Several times, from the discovery of the nest, to the final