Cuckoo Migration: How you can Help

Every year, to escape shifting weather patterns, birds travel up to 24,000 miles. For the Arctic Tern – the furthest flyer to date – migration over a lifetime roughly amounts to a circumference of the Earth. Studies reveal that tremendous obstacles are overcome to survive the distance. Birds need nourishment, and without the right weather conditions, chances of food availability is significantly depleted.  Ecologists are now battling to discover how the unpredictable hailstorms, rainfalls and droughts of the globe can affect birds in their annual journeys. In the meantime, I’ve asked what research has revealed so far, and what we can do to make their voyage a little smoother.

Operation Cuckoo

Cuckoos are brown dove-sized birds that are sadly a rapidly falling population. Being on the ‘Red List’ makes them a cause for concern and it’s estimated that during the last three decades, over half of breeding cuckoos have been lost. This is why it is so paramount that in 2011, and every year since, British Trust for Ornithology Drs Phillip Atkinson and Chris Hewson have worked day and night to physically tag and track migrating Cuckoos.

A sonar-panelled tracking device allowed them to follow every flap, starting in Scotland and taking them all the way to Africa. In doing so, we now have access to a vast amount of previously unfounded information in how the birds – now named everything from John to Mike – manage their journey. Not only does it reveal their precise path, it equally helps to provide reasons for their suffering numbers by revealing where and how they perish.

What do we know now?

In 2011, luckily all tagged birds made it to their destination. However the same cannot be said for the ‘class of’ 2012, where some turned back and others could not survive conditions. Although the study is still early in its years, there have already been some significant findings. Professors were surprised to find, for example, that a completely unexpected route through Spain was chosen by a select number of Cuckoos.

Revelations like this change of path all tie in to Europe’s unpredictable weather. As the study is still so young, conclusions are hard to make just yet. Paul Stancliffe of the British Trust for Ornithology claims that to make informed judgments or find patterns they “would need a decade of data”. Nonetheless he did inform us of some key weather-related aspects of the migration seasons so far. Paul points out that “weather is very different every year. Sometimes localised weather is the problem”. A problem for the Cuckoos of 2012 was a serious drought in Spain which led to forest fires that destroyed much of the Cuckoo’s diet. “Equally” said Paul “rainstorms can have different effects. Rainstorms can last just half a day, in which case the birds can shelter. But then there is the problem that invertebrates are washed from the leaves”. Of the Cuckoos of 2013, all we can analyse as of yet, is the fact that there has been bad weather in much of southern Italy, which meant a late return from Africa.

What can you do?

Whilst your garden may just be a pit-stop for migrating birds, Paul argues that “it’s very important that we garden in a bird-friendly manner”. Currently many species are forced to leave the UK because our gardens are simply not habitable. Bird watching in your garden summer house is highly enjoyable and you can get involved and Paul gives some advice as to what we should be doing to help.Should we be putting food in our gardens?

“In terms of providing food; mealworms and possibly fatcakes. Many small species however have an invertebrate insect diet, so providing food ourselves is not the best help”.

Do bigger birds put smaller birds off? 

“Not necessarily. Wood pigeons do tend to come in to domestic areas during the summer months because they run out of food in rural areas. Magpies can pick a brood to attack, so in the short term they can be a problem but not a huge threat”

What is the best way to help?

“Planting shrubs and flowers that invite invertebrates in is by far the best method”. Here are some of the best plants to keep;

  • Nettles; in pots to avoid them growing too large
  • Long grass; just a patch of unmowed grass in the corner will invite caterpillars
  • Dead plant stems; caterpillars will use these shoots to leave their lava
  • Roses; Sawflies lays eggs in the leaves
  • Garlic mustard
  • You can also buy caterpillars and then release them into your garden


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