Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Cuckoos and Crosswords

Fox 2 11.14Wildlife is always interesting. Most mornings these days when I draw the curtains, I see a big, handsome fox on the roof of the shed the other side of our back garden wall. Usually he’s still asleep. When he wakes, he stretches and yawns. Sometimes he then moves onto the tree-platform or storage-shed next door. I suppose he feels safe on these vantage points.

As for cuckoos, I learned a lot more about them last Saturday when I went to a fascinating talk on bird migration by a scientist from BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). Since then, thinking about what I learned has made me conceive a new storytelling idea namely, to devise something I could call The Cuckoo’s StoryAs with the Mabinogion story I told in North Wales a couple of weeks ago, there’s a bit of a back story.

The back story:

Cuckoos were part of my childhood. In our living room, we had an elaborately carved cuckoo clock: the cuckoo would pop out each hour on the hour, much to my delight. Besides, all round my grandparents’ smallholding deep in the countryside near Cilgerran, I’d hear that crazy repetition of the cuckoos’ call throughout the  cuckoo season.

Then a couple of years ago, I was re-introduced to cuckoos by a friend (Hilary, a million thanks!), who told me about a cuckoo-tracking project being run by BTO. I signed up to sponsor a cuckoo. Welsh cuckoos were being included among the birds being fitted with tracking devices. There was even an invitation to suggest names by which the tracked birds could be known. I remember suggesting Taliesin, the name of one of the earliest Welsh poets.

So that’s how I started getting some cuckoo knowledge. In this Blog previously, I’ve mentioned the astonishingly long and (to me) heroic journey that our cuckoos make each year. Not that they’re really OUR cuckoos at all. Each year, they spend only about 6 weeks in the UK. Then they’re off –  across Europe, the Mediterranean and the Sahara and, after a sojourn in West Africa, down through Africa to the Congo. Then after their time in the tropical forests, they’re on their way back to the UK to breed.

New knowledge:

cuckoo_tcm9-16741By now, I’ve learned various other astonishing facts about cuckoos.  One day I wrote to the BTO to ask: ‘Do cuckoos fly in groups or alone?’ The answer was ‘Alone.’ It struck me – a comparatively tiny little creature going all that way on its own!

Something else about the cuckoo’s journey hit home last Saturday. Of course! The cuckoo has no possibility of what our bird expert described as ‘cultural inheritance’. Baby cuckoos are not brought up by their parents. Each cuckoo egg is laid in the nest of another bird species. So when a young cuckoo sets out on its first great migration, it can rely on nothing except whatever impulses come from its own DNA. It has received no teaching from a parent. It flies alone. And off it goes.

Cuckoo numbers are in decline. I haven’t heard one in Pembrokeshire in years. It’s the same thing with nightingale numbers and turtle-dove numbers and wood warblers too. The BTO is trying to find out what obstacles these migrating birds face. Some of the obstacles and problems human beings will not be able to change. Some are closely linked with us. For instance, our scientist last Saturday raised the thought that, should intensive agricultural practices be introduced in the future in the comparatively small areas of West Africa where cuckoos go to feed in the course of their travels, the habitat that provides them with sustenance there would become  entirely different. The cuckoos would then have lost what provides them with the food they need in that area in order to be able to continue their  journeys.


The cuckoo’s story is a poignant one and it is of enormous relevance to our world. Could I make it tellable? Would there be audiences to whom to tell it? I’m thinking about it. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it. Meantime, there’s the cryptic crossword. Every now and again at home we tackle the day’s offering. This week – a great discovery – we tracked down a website where crossword-doers help each other to get answers to those totally impossible clues that are so frustrating. If only we could all help each other with similar kindness and humour to resolve the world’s more urgent problems.


The top photo this week is of ‘our’ fox. The subject of the other is, of course, the cuckoo.


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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Cuckoos and Crosswords”

  1. Liz Richards Says:

    Love this Mary about the cuckoo. I lived next to a farm and woods and every year it was a challenge to see who would her the cuckoo sing first, There seemed to be so many then , AS everything is in this world ceasing to remain in the animal world it makes you realise what damage we are doing to our planet, The future for the next generation should be safeguarded or else so much will be lost
    Love LIz xx

  2. Hilary Minns Says:

    I can’t wait for your cuckoo story!!

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