24 August 2017

Poetry Thursday - Short Ode to the Cuckoo by W.H.Auden

Not a pretty sight, perhaps - but cleverly adapted

Short Ode to the Cuckoo
No one now imagines you answer idle questions
— How long shall I live?  How long remain single?
Will butter be cheaper? — nor does your shout make
husbands uneasy.
Compared with arias by the great performers
such as the merle, your two-note act is kid-stuff:
our most hardened crooks are sincerely shocked by
your nesting habits.
Science, Aesthetics, Ethics, may huff and puff but they
cannot extinguish your magic:  you marvel
the commuter as you wondered the savage.
Hence, in my diary,
where I normally enter nothing but social
engagements and, lately, the death of friends, I
scribble year after year when I first hear you,
of a holy moment.
- W.H. Auden (via)
Discovered on Natural Histories (Radio 4), a programme of observation and information and sometimes poetic delights. Hear the cuckoo programme here.
The cuckoo is "one of nature's most fascinating cheats" (hear about it here, another BBC programme, from 2011). It can lay its egg in 10 seconds (discovered  by Edgar Chance in the 1920s), and when the egg hatches, the chick will toss the other eggs out of the nest. The female lays 8 or so eggs as season, in separate nests - the record is 25.
They fly to equatorial Africa every year (each chick all by itself!), leaving in summer and returning in spring; there's a traditional verse about it -
The cuckoo comes in April
he sings his song in May
in June he changes the tune
and in July flies away.

Only the male makes the two-note sound. The female is busy removing an egg before she lays hers ... but the host doesn't notice. It's thought that she does this so the host's incubation limit isn't exceeded.
I was thrilled to hear a cuckoo "in the wild" earlier this year on a walk in the Lee Valley, I'm amazed (having listened to the two BBC programmes) to find out what the bird gets up to, and how scientists found all this out.

1 comment:

Olga Norris said...

Thank you for this reminder. Unfortunately the cuckoos round here in north Hampshire are in decline and we have not heard one for several years now where we used almost to be irritated by the constant two-note. It is such a pleasure to hear it again when we holiday in Scotland in spring.
I was lucky enough to hear the burbling sound of a female this year, and then to see her.