23 March 2009

Le retour du coucou

The cuckoo bird is back. I say that in the singular because so far I've heard only one. He cuckooed three or four times early yesterday morning when I was out on my walk with Callie. I cuckooed back at him, and I think I scared him away. (No wisecracks...)

The cuckoos come back to our part of France in late March or early April. They spend the winter in southern Africa, and they return there in July or August every year.

The Peterson Field Guide includes drawings like these.

In French the cuckoo is le coucou. Les coucous seem to like to sit in the very tops of tall trees and call and call and call. If you let it, it can drive you, well, coucou. (When you look at the word, you wonder if coucous would thrive on a diet of couscous. Again, no wisecracks please...)

From the description in the Peterson Field Guide, the bird we hear in Saint-Aignan is Cuculus canorusle coucou gris, or gray cuckoo, in French. Peterson describes the call as a "mellow, penetrating cuc-coo, sometimes single or treble notes..."

Male and some female cuckoos are gray-black.
Les Oiseaux de France features photos like this one...

Have I mentioned this before? A few years ago we had an old friend visiting from the U.S. in April. The first morning, she asked us if we could turn off the cuckoo clock while she was here because she wanted to sleep in a little later. We explained that it wasn't a clock, but a real live bird in the tree outside her window.

The French book titled Les Oiseaux de France (Jean-Claude Chantelat — appropriate name) says that it is rare to see a cuckoo. They are pretty shy around people. But I have seen one, I know. It used to perch in the big cedar tree hear the northwest corner of hour house. That's the tallest tree in the area, and I heard and saw the bird cuckooing up there a few years ago in springtime.

...and this one. If you see a reddish cuckoo,
don't be surprised. It'll be a female.

The cuckoo's most famous trait is that it lays its eggs in other birds' nests. Cuckoos lay eggs of different colors and seem to spread them around, one each among some other bird's eggs. The cuckoo supposedly removes an egg from the nest so that its egg will pass unnoticed. The cuckoo egg hatches first, and the cuckoo chick then pushes all the other eggs out of the nest so that it will get all the food brought by the parents. It's not a pretty story.

In the same book, Monsieur Chantelat says the cuckoo is the only bird that feeds on the obnoxious caterpillars called chenilles processionnaires. These processionary caterpillars resemble the tent caterpillars we have in the U.S. South, but I think they are different species. They are destructive to trees and poisonous to people.

So I hope there are a lot of hungry cuckoos this year — my sincere apologies to the birds they take advantage of. We've seen caterpillar tents in a lot of the evergreen trees around La Renaudière recently, and Walt saw a procession of caterpillars marching across our road the other day. Eat'em up, cuckoos.


  1. I heard cuckoos in 3 places this morning. Three birds? Or one, marking its territory?

    Word verification: rednest.

  2. Haven't heard a cuckoo yet but I was whatching a Mistlethrush making her nest near the house this morning.



  3. Love the cuckoo info!
    What does a tent caterpillar look like?


  4. That is so interesting, I did not even know for sure cuckoos were real birds. Well, maybe I did but I guess I never thought about it.

  5. Coucou Tous et Toutes,

    I love the story about the cuckoo clock! These birds are scoundrels, yet they do some good when they kill the bad caterpillars.

    Our world is an interesting place and I suppose there's room for us all.

  6. Those Chenilles processionnaires ( processionary caterpillars) are bad news according to this:


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