Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king: Then blooms each thing; then maids dance in a ring; Cold doth not sting; the pretty birds do sing.
Spring is a joyous time of the year when all come to life again and the migrant comes return from where they have spent the winter. September 1st is taken to be the official beginning of Spring, but to many, Spring only commences when they hear the clarion call of the Redchested Cuckoo, harbinger of Spring and, to many the time to plough.
This year we heard him for the first time on 29th September [he must have misjudged these cold snaps in October]. Who can be unfamiliar with the clear call of the redchested cuckoo so aptly described in Afrikaans as “piet-my-vrou”;” piet-my-vrou”;”piet-my-vrou”.
Less expressive is the term “whip-mo=will”.
Often heard in Clarens is the characteristic drawn out call of the Black Cuckoo rising at the end: I’m so sa-aa-aaad”. Unfortunately we do not get the well-known cuckoo call as they do in Europe that clock makers are so fond of building into their timepieces. Early in October we also heard “meidjie” “meidjie” the plaintiff call of Klaas’s Cuckoo: and have only just recently heard “dee-dee-diederiks’ the more cheerful call of the Diederik Cuckoo. This was noted on the 15th of October. He is less shy than other cuckoos and often calls for hours from a conspicuous perch high up a tree, so one is more likely to see him than the others. These calls are all familiar especially piet-my-vrou: but how many of us have actually seen him? Nobody will believe me, but years ago, I came across three or four sunning themselves on a dry branch early one morning in the Magaliesburg That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!.
Like most cuckoos the red chested is shy and secretive and very difficult to see, even if his call indicates that he is nearby—it is most frustrating! He perches deep in the foliage of tall trees, where he feeds mainly on caterpillars.
Cuckoos generally have barred plumage under their tails; have rather loud monotonous calls that may continue for some time, sometimes rather irritatingly at night or early morning; they are migrants arriving here in spring, to breed during summer, leaving again in autumn to spend winter in tropical Africa. Their numbers seem to fluctuate in any given area from year to year , probably depending upon rainfall and food supplies consisting mainly of caterpillars, various insects and probably frogs.
An interesting characteristic of cuckoos is that they are ‘brood-parasitic’ laying their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Piet-my-vrou favours the nest of Cape Robins but does make use of a variety of other birds as well. as does Diederik and Klaas. Diederik seems to favour weaver nests. The female carefully watches the host bird building its nest and then quickly moves in to lay her eggs before its host does. Sometimes she will do this when the host has already laid but may have left the nest for a short while. She will kick out any of its host’s eggs or fledglings that may be in the nest. Having laid her own eggs the cuckoo will abandon them to be hatched and the fledglings raised by the host. Cuckoo fledglings will also kick out fledglings of the host bird. This unfriendly behaviour gives rise to the expression ‘a cuckoo in the nest’, defined as an’ unwelcome intruder’.
In spite of this rather ungentlemanly behaviour, the next time piet-my-vrou keeps you awake in the middle of the night or when you are trying to enjoy the last hour’s sleep early in the morning, think kindly of him as he is very much part of the South African scene. Take heart, since, as the summer progress he calls less often and then wish him well on his autumn journey back.