Has the cuckoo disappeared from West Belfast’s hills?

GONE?: The cuckoo has not been heard around Hannahstown for three years GONE?: The cuckoo has not been heard around Hannahstown for three years
By Dúlra

HAS the cuckoo disappeared from the fields surrounding Belfast?

There was a time when the famous call used to carry down from the mountain into Dúlra’s old street in Ramoan Gardens. It was probably calling from a mile away – and you had to stay still and strain your young ears to definitely hear it. Here was a bird that came to our hills from Africa and although as big as a pigeon, it steered clear of people and led a secretive life, rarely to be seen by human eyes.

It travelled fast and cast that bellowing call over wide distances like a foghorn. Dúlra never harboured any hope of ever seeing one. But people who are lucky enough to have homes bordering the brilliant, wild fields right from Moyard to Poleglass still often hear the cuckoo – or at least used to.

A reader who has lived in Hannahstown for more than 40 years says that recently the cuckoo has disappeared. “We used to always hear its call between April and June, but not in the last three years,” Eileen writes.

She wonders if the disappearance of the cuckoo could be related to the newfound popularity of Divis and Black Mountains, which thousands of people now visit thanks to the new, open access. And she may have a point. Wilderness is loved by nature. The wee fields that dot the lower reaches of the Belfast hills are surprisingly untamed – no one walks them, not even farmers any more.

Dúlra mourns every time there’s talk of turning them into housing estates – they’re as precious a sanctuary as the Bog Meadows or Tollymore Forest. But a cuckoo needs more than a few fields. They can lay up to 50 – fifty! – eggs in a summer, although closer to 25 would be more normal. And considering that the meadow pipit is the cuckoo’s favourite ‘host’ (a strange description for a bird that certainly doesn’t want to be a host), the cuckoos of the Belfast hills need the summit where the pipits breed. And so the recent increase in walkers on our hills could certainly have curtailed the cuckoo.

This bird, called cuach in Irish, not only lays an incredible number of eggs – one every second day – but it has to do it fast before the ‘hosts’ return. And so in just 10 seconds it will drop the intruder into the nest having miraculously given it marks like the hosts’ eggs – the sort of childbirth people can only dream of!

But it has another trick to make sure it isn’t caught. It not only mimics the colour of the hosts’ eggs, but the adult cuckoo itself has managed to grow a plumage similar to the sparrowhawk’s. And so when small birds see one in the neighbourhood, they run for their lives.

What awaits them when they return is even worse. The cuckoo child shoves the other eggs from the nest, or else does the same to the chicks. But when there’s just one chick left in the nest, the parents might not be so attentive. So the cuckoo chick uses vocal trickery to make sounds like a full nest of chicks. It’s the ultimate con trick.

Dúlra finally did see a cuckoo many years later in Colin Mountain, slinking across an abandoned quarry wall probably looking for nests. The one thing the cuckoo deserves credit for is its ability to find the nests of some of our most secretive nest-builders, many of them defeat Dúlra’s best attempts year after year. It would be sad to lose the cuckoos which visit Black Mountain and Hannahstown, some of just 5,000 Irish cuckoos.

The meadow pipits won’t be complaining, of course, we should do everything possible to protect this unique bird which has heralded spring for generations of local people.