The Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

Article by Martin Bennett, all images copyright Martin Bennett.

Header image Juvenile Cuckoo being fed by Meadow Pipit

The Ibsley Common and Rockford Common have relatively good numbers of the Cuckoo compared to some areas of the New Forest, although the numbers are gradually declining, possibly due to the demise of the Meadow Pipit who’s numbers have reduced significantly, certainly in the last 5 years.  The Meadow Pipit, Whinchat, Willow Warbler, Wood Warbler, Wheatear, along with the Cuckoo appear to be migrating further up the country to northern areas of the UK. It seems inevitable that the Cuckoo numbers will continue to decline in our area. The reason for these bird species moving north is possibly due to climate change.

The Cuckoo normally arrives from its wintering grounds of Central Africa in the first two weeks of April, and the parents normally start to return to Africa by late June, leaving the juveniles to find their own way back to Africa. The juveniles leave normally from late July to early September.   The latest recorded cuckoo (juvenile) for Hampshire was at the top of Brogenslade Bottom,(Ibsley Common) it was there from 25th-30th October 2010. It appeared to be eating Fox Tail caterpillars, which are very common on Ibsley Common  in late autumn.
The male Cuckoo  makes the notorious “cuckoo” call, the female makes a “bubbling” call. The female will lay anything between 10-20 eggs in her brief summer stay with us.
Nests used to lay their eggs in vary, Reed Bunting being the most common, followed by the Meadow Pipit,( meadow pipit used mostly in the New Forest) then there is a mixture of species, Pied Wagtail, Robin, and Dunnock, occasionally other species nests are used.  A female Cuckoo will generally lay her eggs in a nest belonging  to the same species of bird that reared her.


Cuckoo with Fox moth caterpillar

The favourite diet of the Cuckoo are hairy caterpillars.  When the young cuckoos’  are strong enough to  leave their donor parents, normally in mid July, they are dependant on hairy caterpillars to survive.  One of the caterpillars they rely on for food is the Cinnabar Moth caterpillar which relies on the ragwort plant as its food source, and at that period of the summer these caterpillars should be in abundance.   Unfortunately this is a problem for the Cuckoo, especially in the New Forest, as the great majority of ragwort is pulled by local residents and horse and pony owners. The New Forest is a nectar starved area, caused mainly by the vast numbers of livestock eating most of the wild flowers and plants that invertebrates rely on, this makes the ragwort an even more important flower to embrace, as so many invertebrates come to rely on it to survive,  It is very gratifying to see the EHI parish council  taking a sympathetic and pragmatic view on the pulling of ragwort, by leaving some small areas untouched, rather than the indiscriminate pulling that has gone before.

Adult Cuckoo