This World Migratory Bird Day RSPB Communications Officer, Oriole Wagstaff, celebrates cuckoos and highlights why they need our help.
Named after their call, the sound of the ‘cuck-oo’ in England often signals the arrival of spring. Cuckoos spend the winter in Africa and travel to the UK around late March to April to breed. Unlike most other birds, cuckoos are sneaky when it comes to raising their young and rather than raise them themselves, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, tricking them into raising their young for them. This is known as ‘brood parasitism’ and can even involve cuckoo chicks pushing other eggs, or chicks, out of the nest. Adult cuckoos target reed warblers, dunnocks and ground nesting meadow pipits. However, the once familiar ‘cuck-oo’ sound is disappearing.
Cuckoo, newly hatched chick ejecting reed warbler eggs from nest. Credit: Mike Richards.
The number of cuckoos in England has declined by 70% since 1995. Determining the exact causes of this decline is challenging, but it’s likely a combination of declining breeding habitat and food supply. Cuckoos, and the host parents that raise their chicks, rely on a range of habitats- many of which are being squeezed into smaller spaces. Collaborative science between RSPB, Natural England and the Universities of Aberdeen and Exeter is showing that adult cuckoos rely on a range of invertebrate prey, much of which is associated with the wilder habitats in our countryside – semi-natural grasslands, wetlands, scrub, heath and moorland. Where these habitats are in short supply – in the intensively managed lowlands of the UK – cuckoos are in trouble. So anything we can do to get these biodiversity-rich habitats back into our landscapes will likely help cuckoos, their host parents that raise their chicks, and a wide range of other wildlife.
The RSPB was awarded over £1.2 million as a Wetland Environment Grant, distributed by Natural England and the Environment Agency, to help expand and improve the wetland habitat at RSPB Lydden Valley, Kent. This funded the creation of 200 hectares of new and improved wetland habitat. Significant areas of wet grassland, fen, wet woodland, and wet scrub were created, restoring the site to a natural wetland mosaic. Around 90% of England’s wetlands have been lost in the last 400 years, and many rare wetland species including plants, birds, and mammals are in decline.
This diverse habitat now provides a vital refuge for the cuckoo, and other threatened breeding species including lapwing, redshank, skylark, and yellow wagtail. The open habitat provides space for turtle doves to forage for arable seed while they nest in the thick, dense hedgerows. And it’s not just important for summer migrants, this year unprecedented numbers of white-fronted geese also used the site for several weeks in winter.
By restoring habitats like RSPB Lydden Valley we are planning for the future. The site will provide suitable breeding habitat for vulnerable European ground-nesting birds, like black-winged stilt, purple heron, and bluethroat, whose ranges are contracting and shifting due to the Nature and Climate Emergency. Golden plover and wigeon may also benefit from this quieter wintering refuge, away from busier coastal areas.
Effectively managing this landscape to support our threatened wildlife also has benefits for people. Public Rights of Way enable visitors to enjoy the wildlife spectacles in all seasons while keeping these important wetlands protected from disturbance.
Visitors to RSPB reserves and other ground nesting bird habitats can help keep nests safe by sticking to the paths, giving nesting birds space, and keeping their dogs on leads. Repeatedly being disturbed while nesting or feeding can stress birds out, use up valuable energy and leave them weaker and more vulnerable to other threats.
When off leads, dogs can run through nesting areas you may not have noticed, causing stress to breeding birds. Even if dogs don’t physically harm the birds, being disturbed may cause the parent to desert a nest and it can also cause birds to scatter, making them vulnerable to predators, like birds of prey. By following this simple advice, you can really help to protect rare breeding birds like the cuckoo.
Cuckoos are not the only migratory bird struggling in the UK, and we are creating vital habitat for threatened migratory birds, including turtle dove, yellow wagtails, nightjars and black-tailed godwits, across our reserves and the wider landscape. With the support of our members and funders, we’re able to create and improve vital habitat, ensuring they have homes for the future. These habitats help keep the birds and their chicks safe, but as a charity, we can only continue this vital work if people support us. More than a million people already support our work as RSPB members – will you join them today?
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