Dartmoor National Park Authority news release
7 June 2013
To catch a cuckoo… or four
Spring has returned to Dartmoor, and with it one of the season’s most evocative sounds: the call of the cuckoo. Sadly, in most areas of the UK, the cuckoo population is in decline. To help find out more about this enigmatic bird in order to try and halt this decline, Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and Devon Birds (DB) have teamed up to fund the satellite tagging of four Dartmoor cuckoos.
Despite the cuckoo being one of Devon’s most iconic birds, very little is actually known about it, and the reasons for its decline are unclear. So, before steps can start to be taken to conserve this enigmatic bird, we need to understand more about its ecology.
In Devon, the cuckoo is now rare across much of the county, but the population on Dartmoor has remained stable.
To get a better picture of the movements of Dartmoor’s cuckoos on their incredible migration to Africa, small numbers of birds are being fitted with satellite receivers so their journeys and behaviours can be followed closely.
The tagging is part of a national project, managed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) that has been running since 2011. In mid May, the BTO’s specially licensed cuckoo-catcher came to Dartmoor to put satellite tags on four cuckoos that DNPA ecologists had identified with the assistance of local birders.
“Catching cuckoos involves some field craft!” explained Naomi Barker, Ecologist for Dartmoor National Park Authority.
“Once a cuckoo’s song-post has been identified, one needs to put up special cuckoo-catching nets around it; ideally this needs to be done first thing in the morning before the cuckoo wakes up. Within the netting area a decoy cuckoo is erected and then a cuckoo tape-lure is played to attract the target cuckoo into the net.”
The team managed to catch the four targeted cuckoos in two days. They were all healthy and large enough to have a tag fitted.
“This exciting project looks to address a worrying decline in a much-loved Devon bird,” said George Harris, Chairman of Devon Birds.
“But more than that, it is an international investigation at the forefront of modern ecology and one we are proud to be involved with. While efforts are being made to protect cuckoo habitat here on the moor, getting a better understanding of their worldwide life history is necessary if we are ever to answer this very big conservation question.”
Only male cuckoos are tagged, as female cuckoos are smaller and the tags may be too heavy for them. The males are all still on Dartmoor, but are expected to leave for Africa in June or July.
Each cuckoo was named so it could be identified individually as part of the project. It was felt that names with a Dartmoor connection were appropriate for this investigation hence the team came up with: Dart, Whortle, Tor and Ryder.
You can follow them on their travels through Britain, Europe and Africa. To find out more go to dartmoor.gov.uk/cuckoo or www.devonbirds.org (external link, opens new window).
For further information
Notes for Editors
In England the decline in the cuckoo population has been in the order of 70% over the last 20 years.
The cuckoo has a complicated life cycle: it is a migratory bird, which comes to our shores in April, and leaves again in July. It spends its winters in sub-Saharan Africa, and it is not clear what routes our cuckoos choose to get to their wintering grounds, nor where in sub-Saharan Africa the birds actually are. Furthermore, the cuckoo’s breeding behaviour is rather unusual: it doesn’t build and tend its own nest, but Iays its eggs into the nests of other bird species.
The baby cuckoo then hatches and the first thing it does is to remove all the other eggs and/or chicks from the nest, making it the sole occupant of its adopted nest. The cuckoo is therefore dependent upon healthy populations of its host species, who have faced mixed fortunes themselves in recent times.
Most moorland birds build their nests well-hidden on the ground, so you can help by taking great care to stay on marked tracks and keep your dogs under control during the bird breeding season. You can help us by reporting your cuckoo sightings to Devon Birds www.devonbirds.org (external link, opens new window).
Dartmoor National Park Authority’s purposes under the Environment Act 1995 are:
- to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Park;
- to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area by the public.
In carrying out this work, we are also required to seek to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the National Park.
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There are 15 members of the National Parks family in the UK: Brecon Beacons, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Lake District, New Forest, Northumberland, North York Moors, Peak District, Pembrokeshire Coast, Snowdonia, South Downs, Yorkshire Dales, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, the Cairngorms and the Broads. National Parks are of special value to the whole nation because of their great beauty, their wildlife and cultural interests and the opportunities they offer for quiet enjoyment. However, they are not nationally owned - the land is in the hands of many landowners or occupiers including farmers. Over 33,500 people live in Dartmoor National Park and many millions of visits are made to it each year.