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( Originally Published 1894 )
The Cuckoo is always welcomed in England as the harbinger of Spring. Its cry is one of the most easily distinguished of bird songs, and is the nearest approach to a definite musical interval produced by any bird. The habit of the cuckoo of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, has given rise to much speculation, ancient and modern, and now, though the fact remains, a sufficiently satisfactory reason seems as remote as ever. The nest of the Hedgesparrow seems to be the one most often selected, though that of the wagtail is sometimes chosen. The consequences to the young of the native bird, are somewhat serious as the following will show.
Dr. Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination says:-"On the 18th of June, 1787, I examined the nest of a hedge-sparrow (Accentor modularis), which then contained a cuckoo and three hedge sparrows' eggs. On inspecting it the day following, the bird had hatched; but the nest then contained only a young cuckoo and one hedge-sparrow. The nest was placed so near the extremity of a hedge, that I could distinctly see what was going forward in it; and, to my great astonishment, I saw the young cuckoo, though so lately hatched, in the act of turning out the young hedge-sparrow. The mode of accomplishing this was very curious; the little animal, with the assistance of its rump and wings, contrived to get the bird upon its back, and making a lodgment for its burthen by elevating its elbows, clambered backwards with it up the side of the nest till it reached the top, where, resting for a moment, it threw off its load with a jerk, and quite disengaged it from the nest. It remained in this situation for a short time, feeling about with the extremities of its wings, as if to be convinced whether the business was properly executed, and then dropped into the nest again. I afterwards put in an egg, and this, by a similar process, was conveyed to the edge of the nest and thrown out. These experiments I have since repeated several times, in different nests, and have always found the young cuckoo disposed to act in the same manner. "It sometimes happens that two cuckoos' eggs are deposited in the same nest, and then the young produced from one of them must inevitably perish. Two cuckoos and one hedgesparrow were hatched in the same nest, and one hedgesparrow's egg remained unhatched. In a few hours afterwards a contest began between the cuckoos for the possession of the nest, which continued undetermined till the next afternoon, when one of them, which was somewhat superior in size, turned out the other, together with the young hedge-sparrow and the unhatched egg. The combatants alternately appeared to have the advantage, as each carried the other several times to the top of the nest, and then sunk down again, oppressed by the weight of the bnrthen ; till at length, after various efforts, the strongest prevailed, and was afterwards brought up by the hedge-sparrow." Jenner's experiences have been corroborated by repeated experiments since. Colonel Montague carried a hedge-sparrow's nest, so inhabited, into his house where he could watch it at leisure and where he saw the young cuckoo frequently oust the baby hedge-sparrow in the manner described. The cuckoo feeds on caterpillars, and insects. It may be tamed, but as a rule does not live long in confinement. Its note is heard from April to June.
That the cuckoo is scarcely an amiable bird would appear from the following incident recorded and the by Dr. Stanley: "A young thrush, just able to Thrush. feed itself, was placed in a cage. A short time after, a young cuckoo, which could not feed itself, was placed in the same cage, and fed by the owner. At length it was observed that the thrush fed it; the cuckoo opening its mouth, and sitting on the upper perch, and making the thrush hop down to fetch its food. One day, while thus expecting its supply, a worm was put into the cage, and the thrush could not resist the temptation of eating it, upon which the cuckoo descended, attacked the thrush with fury, and literally tore out one of its eyes, and then hopped back. Although so lacerated, the poor thrush meekly took up some food, and continued to do so till the cuckoo was full grown."