The people on The Times letters desk get frightfully upset if you talk about cuckoos. They tell you that The Times has never run correspondence about the first cuckoo: that the whole thing is fantasy, urban myth, and as such deeply unfair to the newspaper.
It all harks back to ancient days when a cuckoo could be regarded as a basic human right. Everyone was going to hear a cuckoo at some stage: the pleasure was in the first one, the one that told you spring had uncompromisingly sprung. And it was of course more sporting if you heard yours ahead of anyone else.
I remember hearing cuckoos on Streatham Common in South London as a boy and not being at all surprised. Cuckoos were part of the way of the world: their ubiquity and abundance was no more remarkable than the rising of the sun in the morning. The sound of the cuckoo was part of the pulse of the year.
Now any correspondence would be about if — not when — you heard a cuckoo. These days most people go through the year without hearing a cuckoo at all. I’ve managed that myself, despite being (a) a birder and (b) a country-dweller.
But not since I moved to Norfolk. Our small scrap of marsh on the edge of the Broads has been echoing with cuckoos for the past five weeks. The air has been full of the frantic male twin-syllable call, imploring any females to come flying across the watery landscape and make more cuckoos.
Is it the same bird? Or are there several males hanging around in the same area, making the same sort of circuit around the big skies above the warbler-thronged reeds? About an hour after dawn there is always one in full voice: shouting the same two syllables at the world again and again.
On and off throughout the day I’m reminded of my own adolescence, when all I really wanted to do was to stand up in a high place imploring “Sex please! Sex please!” – until some gorgeous female obliged me.
It never happened like that, alas. And perhaps it hasn’t happened to the cuckoo or cuckoos of the marsh. Certainly I haven’t heard the rare, thrilling bubbling call of a female as she answers a male with an equal and opposite passion and the two fly towards each other on a glorious amorous collision course.
We’re running short of cuckoos. No one is quite sure why: that’s; the problem of being a migrant. There may be problems at home, and there may be more problems anywhere between here and their West African wintering grounds. The British Trust for Ornithology is doing some high-quality research, tracking cuckoos on their journey, and they need our support.
Cuckoos have made the dreaded transition from ordinary birds to special birds: bird that make you rejoice when you come across them, birds that you worry about at all other times. Birds that tell us that we are getting too much wrong.
But here around the marsh I have the illusion of plenty, and I can at least take heart in that. There’ll be calling away for at least another week; I hope they have success in that time and that the air will be full of gorgeous females.
One more week of listening to their twin-syllabled pleas.