Sumer is ycomen in (long post)
Posted by Caroline on May 07, 1998 at 15:42:15:
In England is published a little magazine called The Countryman which is full of neat articles about country lore , folklore, local history, weird and wonderful sights ,and general rural goings-on. The summer 1996 edition has an article about Cuckoos, which not only mentions the Gentleman's Magazine, but helps to answer the eternal question "What did a country gentleman do all day?", and gives us a bit of folksy stuff too.
Before I regurgitate the article, I'd better explain , for those not familiar with it, that the Cuckoo is a very odd bird, especially from the English point of view. The first sign of it, in April, isn't a sign at all, it's the sound- a loud and clear perfect-fourth two notes that are beyond the skills of a clockmaker to reproduce accurately. Around June, the song changes, becomes quite raucus, and by August, has disappeared altogether. Usually cuckoos disappear about this time, too. Cuckoos are rarely seen, and when found , are almost always alone. A rather dumpy, frumpy bird, the plumage looks remarkably like that of a hawk. But the strangest thing about a cuckoo is that it builds no nest, but puts a single egg into the nest of another, often smaller bird, sometimes removing one of the mother's eggs at the same time. The fledgling cuckoo quickly shoves all other competition out of the nest, and by the normal biological signal of opening its mouth constantly, induces its foster-parents to care for it alone, often resulting in the two tiny parents standing on its back to feed it.
Here's the article...........
In far-off eighteenth-century days, before country magazines existed, gentlemen and parsons (including Gilbert White) exchanged natural history notes and opinions by writing to the editor of The Gentleman's Magazine And on no subject did they write more often than on the 'cuckow'- as they usually spelled it.
How keenly our forefathers- recovering from winter in their hardly-heated and monotonously dieted homes- looked forward to the cuckoo's heralding of the easier summer-time: 'The season of the year approaching where we hope to hear the welcome note of the Cuckoo...' wrote 'TB' of cheadle in March 1806.They heard the cuckoo with a more intense pleasure than we do today and, with their imperfect understanding of its habits, based as much on folk-lore as on observation, could speculate wildly in a way denied to us.
Was the cuckoo a hawk? why was the adult bird mobbed by, but the fledgling irresistible to, small birds? how did it choose, find and lay an egg in the host's nest? did the female suck the host's eggs? did it oversee the host's rearing of its offspring? how did the young cuckoo learn its call? why does the adult bird change its note in summer? did cuckoos flock together; did they hibernate or migrate; why were they parasitic? Such were the questions keenly debated in Gentleman's Magazine in Georgian times.
Correspondents noted that local folklore associated the wryneck with the cuckoo. One wrote that in Wales the wryneck was known as 'gwas y gog'- or the cuckoo's forerunner or attendant. The Swedes regard it in the same light. In the midland counties of England the common people called it the Cuckoo's Maiden.
From North country observation, that the cuckoo's voice became 'scabbed ' once the birds eggs had generally hatched, came the assertion in an old children's song that the cuckoo sucked little birds' eggs 'to make her song clear'. Disappearance of the cuckoo in late summer gave rise to the belief- also shared by 'Old Pliny'- that it assumed the absolute form of a hawk, and that its voice alters as well as its shape and plumage'. This tradition was firmly dismissed by Gilbert White in his 1770 Journal: 'I can give no credit to the notion that they are birds of prey....They have a weak bill and no talons'.
to establish whether cuckoos migrated or hibernated, many gentlemen tried capturing and keeping a young cuckoo. On 21 June 1797, a 'Constant Reader ' reminded the magazine's subscribers that 'this is the time for offering a reward to the neighbouring boys to bring in cuckoo. The writer received one on the 17th inst, almost ready for flight, which is fed with fresh raw beef, and appears to go on well. He kept one last summer, for many weeks, which died suddenly in September, unfortunately swallowing a bit of broken plate on which its meat was placed.....' These experiments always ended with the birds escaping or dying; but in his 1775, Journal, Gilbert White noted that a parson had assured him that an 'old clergyman at Northchappel in Sussex, kept a cuckoo in a cage three or four years; and that he had seen it several times, both winter and summer....'
Reports of cuckoos successfully hibernating were always second-hand. In 1796, 'Hz Snezoc' recounted that 'an aged relative of mine', celebrating Christmas eve with his family in a manor house at Chilham, Kent, had been astonished when from a hollow Yule-log on the fire came the 'the unseasonable voice of the cuckow. On examining its cavity they discovered the bird, so re-animated by the rareified air as to be not only capable of singing, but apparently of all its other functions'.
All first-hand accounts of trying to prove hibernation reported failure. thus, 'Clericus Eboracensis' in 1796 wrote that he too had revived a captive young cuckoo, which had begun to droop by mid-August, by placing it near a good fire; but as it refused its diet of brad and water, and 'having heard that cuckows pass their oblivious winters in unfrequented thickets, I laid him in the trunk of an old decayed Oak, expecting to renew my acquaintance with him in the spring; but long before that season the vermin devoured him'.
Two unresolved problems relating to the young cuckoo greatly excersised correspondents. The first was how did it learn to its call, rather that adopt that of its foster-parents- since , according to 'T' writing in 1785, 'No bird sings any note he has not heard from the parent bird'. He thought that when the young cuckoo was able to fly, 'the old one sits near him and teaches him his language'.
But 'JG' of Kendal objected that adult cuckoos had 'become silent towards the end of June, when the young ones should hear them'; the young ones must therefore acquire the call 'in distant countries after migration, or in the following spring after their return'.
The second unresolved problem was how the young cuckoo attracted other birds, besides its foster-parents, to feed it. 'TB' of Cheadle saw a young cuckoo 'being fed by upwards of twenty Tit-larks' and anothe correspondent had counted no fewer than 48 wagtails bringing food to a 'young monster'.
But the greatest question was why the cuckoo was a parasite. In 1785 a correspondent suggested that it was because 'there is much reason to believe that it is a hermaphrodite bird', asserting that this was why 'no two cuckows are never seen together'. He was immediately challenged by 'IL', who had lately found a cuckoo to be female by dissection', and by many who had seen numbers of cuckoos together.
Another correspondent preferred a theory put forward by the French naturalist Vaillant: 'It is calumniating the cuckoos to say that they are cold and indifferent in their amours. They are on the contrary very ardent; and I should rather conclude that it may be on that very account, namely, because they are very prolific, and very much given to the pleasures of love, that they dispense with the cares of building and sitting. And I will add, that their great ardour in the act of generation. and their constant appetite for it, may render them unfit for domestic cares, and especially for incubation, their blood being perhaps too hot......'.
So now you know what country gentlemen did all day. Can't you imagine a young Tom Jones scrabbling after a cuckoo? Or Mr Darcy trying to explain all this to his son?
http://www.mudcat.org/cgi-bin/as_web.exe?Oct97+D+2522062 will give you a version of the 'children's song'
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