Is it the Cuckoo’s fault?

Full body photograph of a European cuckoo.
European cuckoo (Photo by Marcin Karetta)

For about a week now, the cuckoo has been announcing that spring has come here in Bonane. Its distinctive call of “cuck-oo cuck-oo” has been heard by several people but, as usual, this secretive bird is heard rather than seen.

For a few days, the cuckoo – apparently just returned to Ireland from its toasty wintering grounds in central and southern Africa – seemed to have got it right. Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday were mainly very pleasant weather days indeed. Plenty of laundry was washed, then dried on the line. Children and adults alike got their first sunburn of the year. Not even I could resist a spot of gardening (though not too much now!).

But then – and we should have seen it coming, given the arrival of the cuckoo – it hit us. Scaraveen arrived and with it something like the return of winter! Cold rain, even hail showers; chilly winds; ground frost at night. All hope of summer all but dashed.

‘Scaraveen’ is one of those Irish words a blow-in to Kerry and Cork learns pretty quickly. Words like ‘sceartán’ (tick) or ‘míoltóg’ (midge). Words which one may not immediately understand without their translation into English, but the tone of voice with which they are spoken not heralding anything good anyway.

I learned from Billy Ryle of Tralee that, apparently, ‘scaraveen’ derives from the Irish phrase ‘garbh shíon na gCuach’ – the rough weather of the cuckoo. This gradually became ‘garbh shion’, then ‘Garaveen’ and, finally, ‘Scaraveen’.

Juvenile cuckoo being fed an insect by its songbird foster parentFolklore has it that Scaraveen is nature’s way of exacting retribution on the cuckoo for the havoc she causes in the bird world. Most of us will have learned in school that the cuckoo is a terrible freeloader. She lays her eggs in the nests of small song birds with precision timing. Once hatched, the cuckoo chick ejects the legitimate occupants from their nests, sending them to their certain deaths some feet below. The murderous cuckoo chick is then raised by the unsuspecting foster parents. They are often driven to near exhaustion with the chick’s demand for huge amounts of insects to gobble down its greedy throat.

So, to punish the cuckoo, Mother Nature sends the Scaraveen, usually between mid-April and mid-May (give or take a week or two). It reverts our often mild spring weather to cold, wet misery, more typical of winter. Unfortunately, we all pay the price for the cuckoo’s misdeeds, alongside this cheeky bird.

To be fair though, when Dr Alexander Buchan, a leading 19th century Scottish meteorologist, researched the existence of unseasonal weather glitches at certain times of the year, he found there were six such cold and three such warm spells, the so-called ‘Buchan Spells’. Among the cold spells were 10-14 April and 9-14 May, which is roughly compatible with the Scaraveen period. Therefore, although I rather like the cuckoo-punishing theory, this much maligned bird may be an entirely innocent party!

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