Cuckoos and Cuckooflowers

These mornings I am lucky to wake to the sound of the cuckoo, (Cuculus canorus), Cuach in Irish, a summer visitor to Ireland, from central or south Africa. It is a dove-sized bird, with a sleek body, long tail and pointed wings, similar to a kestrel or sparrowhawk, especially when in flight. The male makes the characteristic “coo-coo” sound, thought to be declaring his territory, while the females make a bubbling “pupupupu” sound. Adult male cuckoos are a uniform grey on the head, neck, back, wings and tail. The underparts are white with black barring. Adult females can appear in one of two forms, one resembles the adult male plumage, but has throat and breast barred black and white with yellowish wash. The other has the grey replaced by a brown/orange colour, with strong black barring on the wings, back and tail, the young are brown. Cuckoos are well-known brood parasites, the females laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, including meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers, meadow pipits are their main Irish hosts. Adults arrive in late March or April and depart in July or August, with young birds leaving a month or so later. They eat insects, especially caterpillars.


Thinking of cuckoos brought to my mind the cuckooflower, so named as it flowers from April to June, which coincides with the arrival of the first cuckoo. Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), Biolar gréagháin in Irish, a member of the mustard family, is a pretty flower with 4 pink, pale lilac or white petals. It is also known as Lady’s Smock as it was said to resemble a milkmaid’s smock. The Cuckooflower has a rosette of leaves at its base and an upright stem that bears the delicate, small flowers. It is a common plant that grows in damp grassy places, wet meadows, fields, riverbanks and roadsides, and is especially abundant in Ireland this year. It is a larval foodplant of the Orange-tip butterfly and many other insects. Cuckoo flower is seldom used in herbalism nowadays, though an infusion of the leaves has been used to treat indigestion and promote appetite.



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