Cuckoo

We generally welcome the Cuckoo's call as a sign of spring, though I am not sure many little birds are quite as happy about their arrival. They are summer visitors and well-known brood parasites; the females laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, especially Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks and Reed Warblers. Unsurprisingly, Cuckoos are mainly found in the areas where these little birds live: reed beds, moorland, woodland and farmland, and not in built-up city centres. When not here, they hang out in the African forests discussing their dastardly deeds.

The Cuckoo is the size of a pigeon and can look a bit like a Sparrowhawk when flying as it has similar stripes. The upper parts, head and breast are plain blue grey. The under parts are white with black barring. The bill is short and curved. The tail is rounded with a white tip and they hold the wings 'drooped' when perched. The Cuckoo is named after its call, which sounds "Cuck-coo" and is intended to ring out over vast distances. It's sometimes referred to as a stud-post call. It is the male Cuckoo imploring a female to seek him out for a bit of fun at the expense of others.

Cuckoos feed mainly on insects, especially hairy caterpillars which other birds avoid as they taste horrid.

The female Cuckoo finds a victim's nest and, when they are not looking, takes out one of their eggs and puts her own in its place. The female Cuckoo needs secrecy for this to succeed, because if the victim sees her at the nest they become suspicious and closely check their eggs. She glides down to the nest from a hidden lookout perch, removes an egg, lays her own in its place, and is off – all within 10-seconds! Cuckoos can lay eggs that look just like those being replaced, which is a very neat trick. They lay up to 25 eggs in a season which is a lot of poor victims. As she departs, she often gives a chuckle call, as if in triumph. This is perhaps the best trick of all. The chuckle is similar to the rapid call notes of a Sparrowhawk, and it diverts the victim's attention away from noticing that an egg has been swapped.

The young Cuckoo hatches after 12 days and instinctively pushes all the other young and eggs out of the nest so only it is left to be fed. It leaves the nest after 19 days and demands to be fed for a further 3 weeks before making its way back to Africa.

About 15,000 pairs visit Britain from April to August. They are widespread but thinly scattered. The Cuckoo is declining partly due to difficulties on their migration route and partly due to the lack of caterpillars caused by changes in agriculture. They are incredible travellers. A young Cuckoo, having been raised on its own in the nest of another bird, will find its way unaided back to central Africa. Most Cuckoos leave us in July and initially fly across to Southern Europe. They then feed up before the next step of their journey, a gruelling 3,000km (1,875 miles) crossing of the Mediterranean and the Sahara. A lot don't make it. Their population decline has made them a Red List species.

Their Latin name is 'cuculus canorus' where 'cuculus' is Latin for 'cuckoo' and 'canorus' means 'to sing'. Calculating conman would be better. From cuckoo, we get 'cuckold' which is someone tricked into bringing up a child that is not their own.

Grey Heron

Grey Herons are fairly large birds, standing a metre tall and weighing up to 2 kilograms. They have a fairly ancient lineage and first appeared in the fossil record in the Paleogene period so they know a thing or two about fishing. They are all called Frank as that is their harsh, barking call when flying.

Grey Herons, unsurprisingly, have a grey back. They have white underparts, a long thin white neck with black marks that act as camouflage (breaking up its neck outline when viewed by fish up through the water), a black wispy crest, large broad wings, an orange dagger bill (that gets redder in the breeding season), and very long legs. Their legs are so long they stick out the back when flying, while they hold their head in an S-shape so they don't look like Concord. They often stand hunched up on one leg with their head resting between their shoulders, trying to look small.

Grey Herons can usually be seen by lakes, slow flowing rivers, marshes and estuaries, but can also trick you by standing in a field. In fact, they will roost in groups in a 'standing ground' where they discuss the day's fishing. A heron by a stream is a good indication of how clean it is and the presence of fish as they eat lots of fish! Their feeding technique is to stand motionless beside the water, ready to grab a passing fish that didn't see that dagger beak coming. They will feed on amphibians and small mammals as well, but fish is their favourite.

Heron courtship involves the male calling from his chosen nesting site - up a tree! Yes, a tree. Unless you have seen a heronry, it is hard to believe something so big can nest in trees with lots of other herons. On the arrival of a female, both birds take part in a stretching ceremony, in which each bird extends its neck vertically before getting down to the serious matter of building a big nest that won't fall down. The nest is made of a platform of sticks. Both birds build it with the male getting material while the female does the construction and ordering about. They lay 3-5 eggs anytime between February to April. The young herons hatch after 25 days and the youngsters leave the nest 25-30 days later and clamber along branches for a bit more room. They can finally fly when they are 50 days old and soon move on as mum and dad have all the fishing rights in the local area.

Grey Herons have suffered in the past from water pollution and not being particularly liked by anglers or people with ponds full of posh fish which are especially yummy and easy to catch. They can also suffer in harsh winters and from hungry old bishops. Roast heron was once a specially prized dish; when George Neville became Archbishop of York in 1465, they served 400 herons to the guests. There are 13,000 pairs in Britain. Our herons are resident, but European ones migrate south in winter.

In Ancient Egypt, the deity Bennu was depicted as a heron and in Ancient Rome, the heron was a bird of divination that gave an augury (sign of a coming event) by its call, like the raven or owl. The Latin name is 'ardea cinerea' which comes from the Latin 'ardea' which means 'heron' and 'cinerea' which means 'ash-grey' (from 'cineris' for 'ashes').

Green Woodpecker

If you hear the laughing 'yaffle' of a Green Woodpecker, you are too late. It has already flown off like a green torpedo. The place to look for them is hopping about on the ground at the edge of trees as they feed on the ground and don't actually peck wood much except when making their nest holes.

The Green Woodpecker is the size of a pigeon and is the largest of the British Woodpeckers. It has a dark green back, paler green underparts with a bright yellow-green rump. On their head they have a bright red crown, a black moustache, and black round the eyes. They climb trees in a series of jerks using their stiff tail feathers against the trunk for support - but you will be lucky seeing them as they are superb at making sure the tree is between you and them. Their call is a laughing "kyoo kyoo kyoo", as they taunt you to find them. You would think a bird with a bright red head would be easy to see, but their green coats blend in well with the ground and they can look like a distant red flower. They have a comical flight, closing their wings after 3 or 4 flaps to look like a tubby green undulating torpedo.

The Green Woodpecker is an ant eating specialist and has a very long sticky tongue (good for blowing raspberries) to extract ants and their eggs from the nest chambers below the ground. They will eat other insects, but ants are their favourites, giving them a distinctive poo that looks like ash from a cigarette and contains the remains of hundreds of ant bodies.

Although Green Woodpeckers can pair for life, they are antisocial outside the breeding season and spend most of the year living alone doing standup comedy. The two halves of a pair may roost near to each other during the winter, but they won't re-establish their pair bond until March. This is achieved through the use of loud calls, and a period of courtship. The 5-6 eggs are laid between March and June in a nest hole within a suitable tree trunk such as oak, ash or birch. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 17 days. The youngsters are then fed by mum and dad and can fly 23 days later. The youngsters carry on being fed by their parents for a further 7 weeks before finally becoming fully independent.

There are 50,000 pairs in Britain and not a single one in Ireland (as there are enough comedians over there already). They live in woodland, small copses, orchards, farmland and parks, and don't move far from where they were born. Preservation of old mature woods and meadows is extremely important for their survival.

Their Latin name is 'picus viridis' where 'picus' is Latin for 'woodpecker' and 'viridis' means 'green'.

Black-headed Gull

Surprisingly, given all the raucous noise it makes, the Black-headed Gull is the smallest of our common gulls and is more at home in a town park than at the seaside. They are the Essex boys of the gull world, always squabbling amongst themselves. If they could wear bling and a tracksuit, they would.

Black-headed is not a brilliant description of this gull as it has a white head for half of the year (with a blotchy smudge behind the eye) and a dark brown one for the rest - it just looks black from a distance. Their body is white with a pearl grey back. The bill and legs are bright red. There is an obvious white stripe along the front edge of their wings which helps to identify them when flying. The wings have black tips and look dark underneath. Their call is a very distinctive, loud, harsh, grating "tree-arrrgh" as if they are hoarse from shouting at each other so much.

These Essex boys will eat almost anything including fish, crabs, worms, seeds, rubbish tip waste, and insects. They will even mob other birds for food - like playground bullies. In fact, they even like to visit school playgrounds in winter for scraps, so keep tight hold of your Dairylea Dunkers.

Breeding starts in April with the male selecting a site and building a rough nest from a pile of vegetation on the ground. Finding a spot can be tricky as Black-headed Gull colonies can vary in size from a few birds to many thousands! The female joins in to complete the nest. Both birds sit on the 2-3 eggs, which hatch after 23 days. Both parents feed the young which leave the nest after 10 days and can fly 15 days later. One particular behaviour of the Black-headed Gull is that they remove the eggshells from the nest once the chicks have hatched. The youngsters are fed by the parents regurgitating food onto the ground, rather than into each chick's mouth, and the chicks take it in turns to munch through the mess. Once they have left the nest, the young birds take two years to reach full maturity - and learn enough swear words to impress the girls.

The breeding population in Britain is about 200,000 pairs but swells up to over 2 million individuals in winter as the Northern European birds come over for a squabble. Most of the British birds are locally resident though may move about in winter to find food. Black-headed Gulls can be found on farmland, towns, beaches, roofs, car parks, playing fields, rubbish tips - just about everywhere. They can be found over much of Europe, except Spain, Italy and Greece where they were banned for loutish behaviour. The oldest known Black-headed Gull lived to be 32 years old.

Their Latin name is 'chroicocephalus ridibundus' where 'chroicocephalus' is from the Ancient Greek 'khroizo' meaning 'to colour' and 'kephale' for 'head'. The 'ridibundus' is Latin for 'laughing'.

House Martin

House Martins are very sociable and inclined to operate in small flocks. They will rush past you in a fluttering flight on stiff triangular wings while blowing "prrit" raspberries and flashing their white bums just so you don't confuse them with Swallows.

A House Martin has a blue-black back, pure white underparts, a white bum, a forked tail with no streamers and a dark underwing. They arrive in late April, usually a week after the Swallows, and depart late October to over winter in Africa. Where they go in Africa is still a bit of a mystery. It is thought somewhere high above the central African rainforest. While on this winter holiday, they do their moult (feather change) so they are looking spic and span for when they return.

House Martins eat insects like aphids, gnats, flies, beetles, and ants which they catch in flight, similar to a Swallow, though often at a higher level in the sky. They seldom land on the ground except to gather nest material.

Nesting starts in May, a week or two after arriving. House Martins have largely abandoned nesting on cliffs and mainly make their cup-shaped nests under the eaves of houses, reusing and repairing old nests year after year. The nest takes both adults 12-14 days to make and is made of 2,500 small mud pellets stuck together and has an entrance with a clear flight path in. Being sociable, House Martins prefer to nest in groups. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 15 days. Both parents feed the youngsters who can fly after 30 days. From 15 days the parents try to lure the youngsters from the nests on test flights. They have two broods (sometimes three) with brothers and sisters from the first brood helping to feed the second. Late broods can still be in the nest in October. If you stand under a House Martin's nest at night, you can hear the conversational twittering as they read bedtime stories. Although their nests are protected, ignorance and people not liking poo on their houses leads to some bad homeowners knocking nests down. The House Martins will build a new nest elsewhere, but it results in fewer successful broods.

There are about 500,000 pairs in Britain with the preferred habitat being open country with low vegetation, such as pasture, meadows and farmland, and preferably near water, although they can also be found in mountains. House Martins have even moved back into cities if the air is clean. The oldest ringed bird lived to be 14 years old.

The Latin name is ’delichon urbica’ where ’delichon’ is an anagram of the Ancient Greek term ’chelidon’ meaning ’swallow’ and ’urbicum’ is from the Latin for 'of the town'.

Kestrel

The Kestrel is best known for its hovering, like a harrier jump jet, above motorway verges and railway embankments. It is a pigeon sized falcon with a short neck, long wings, and long tail. The male Kestrel has a grey head, spotted chestnut back, grey tail with a black band, and buff underparts with dark spots. The wings are held straight in flight with a contrasting light inner wing and dark outer wing, giving them a black tipped look. The female Kestrel is slightly larger, has a more barred back, more streaked breast, and a brown head. You mainly hear Kestrels when they are being mobbed, issuing a yikkering "ke ke ke" call.

The Kestrel hunts for food in daylight and at dusk, hovering with its tail fanned and wings flapping or holding position effortlessly in a head wind. They drop from the sky or perch to feed on shrews, mice, moles, baby rabbits, chicks of ground-nesting birds and especially voles (particularly the yummy short-tailed ones). They will also eat large insects. When a tasty morsel is sighted, the Kestrel glides gently down and at the last-minute lifts its wings above its back to pounce on to its prey. The Kestrel can see near ultraviolet light, allowing it to detect the urine trails around rodent burrows (as they shine in the ultraviolet part of sunlight) like a pee seeking missile. The average Kestrel needs to eat 4-8 voles a day.

Kestrels nest in barns, holes in trees or the disused nests of larger birds. It does not build a nest of its own as such. When the 4-6 eggs are laid, both parents will sit on the eggs which hatch after 30 days. Mum looks after the kids for the first 14 days, letting dad know all about it by issuing a very quarrelsome "wik wik wik wik" call. Once the youngsters get a little bigger, they are fed by both parents. They fly after 30 days but rely on mum and dad for a further month while learning to hunt and hover. The youngsters need to eat 3-4 voles each per day to, so feeding a family of 6 is a lot of voles (24)! On average, only 2-3 chicks usually survive.

The Kestrel is a widespread, sedentary resident with about 50,000 pairs in Britain. It is scarce in mountain and urban areas. Sadly, like so many birds of prey, the Kestrel is in decline. Modern farming leaves less land to support the voles and small mammals they eat. The name Kestrel comes from the French 'crecelle' meaning 'rattle' - a reference to its yikkering call. The Latin name is 'falco tinnunculus' where 'falco' derives from 'falcis' for 'sickle' because of the shape of the claws and 'tinnunculus' from 'tinnulus' meaning 'shrill'. An archaic name for a Kestrel is a windhover which sums it up perfectly. I have no idea why we went all French.