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Flight of the cuckoo      

Heard or seen a cuckoo?

Dartmoor National Park Authority, in partnership with Devon Birds, is taking part in a national project managed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to track Dartmoor's cuckoos via satellite on their long migration between their breeding grounds here, and their wintering grounds in Africa.

Flight of the cuckoo

Over the course of 2013-2014, seven Dartmoor cuckoos were fitted with satellite tags, as part of a project that has been running nationally since 2011, during which a number of cuckoos have been tagged from various parts of the UK.

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 in 2013, and Wistman, Emsworthy and Meavy in 2014.

Dart and Ryder perished on their migration to Africa in the autumn of 2013. Tor died in Morocco on his return journey to the UK in March 2014. Sadly, Wistman died on Dartmoor two weeks after being tagged. He was most likely predated. Meavy did not survive his Sahara crossing and stopped sending signals late in 2014. Contact with Whortle and Emsworthy was lost in Africa early in 2015.  This sorry record accurately reflects the national picture of decline with 70% of the population disappearing from the English countryside in the last 20 years.

Heard or seen a cuckoo?

To help collect information on cuckoos here on Dartmoor and across Devon, part of the Flight of the cuckoo project has been the creation of a live web map by Devon Birds in collaboration with Dartmoor National Park Authority and the University of Exeter. This has allowed anyone to enter their cuckoo sightings (or more likely hearings) and see the results on this map. Whilst these records will not give us an accurate picture of cuckoo numbers on Dartmoor (2005 figures for Dartmoor were estimated at 100 males) it does indicate some of the key areas used by the birds.

There has been a fantastic response and we would like to thank everyone who submitted a record. Over 1,300 cuckoo sightings were reported during the 2015 season in Devon, with over 90% of these records on Dartmoor.  The first sighting was 5 April and the last on 2 July which aligns well with the migration times seen in the satellite-tagged cuckoos.

Whilst the call of the cuckoo remains one of the most well-known sounds of our spring, the population of cuckoos has seen a dramatic crash in England, with a 70% decline over the last 20 years. The reasons for the decline are unclear, and as the cuckoo only spends 2-3 months of the year in the UK, it is important to understand what happens to these birds once they leave. So far, the project  has already provided information regarding the cuckoo's decline, as it shows the exact routes and stop-overs the birds use, as well as when and where many of the cuckoos meet their demise - or not! Some are still alive and continue to transmit signals picked up by passing satellites.

Within this picture of decline, Dartmoor, as southern England's biggest upland, holds nationally important populations of cuckoo and the population is thought to be stable within the national park. This is because Dartmoor is a large area of extensively farmed uplands, where cattle, ponies and sheep graze the moor and create an open habitat with tussocks of heather, gorse and grass.

As such, Dartmoor is an excellent place in which to study moorland birds, and to understand how land management and climate change are affecting their populations. In particular, a lot of work has been taking place on Holne Moor: a team of dedicated birders, in collaboration with Exeter University, has set out to find and monitor moorland nests from egg-laying to fledging so that successes and failures could be quantified and linked to weather patterns and habitat conditions.
Cuckoos do not tend their own nests, but lay an egg into the nest of another bird species.

On Dartmoor, this is almost always the unsuspecting meadow pipit. The first thing the cuckoo chick does when it hatches is to evict all the other eggs, so that it gains all the attention from its foster parents. The cuckoo grows to an enormous size compared to the meadow pipits, who have to work very hard to keep up with the cuckoo's constant demand for food.
Visit the BTO website (external website, opens new browser window) to to find out more about the national cuckoo tracking project.

Go to (external link, opens new browser window) and click on Cuckoos to learn more about cuckoos and what to do to help them.

Good places to enjoy Dartmoor's uplands accompanied by the song of the cuckoo are the Tavy Valley, Burrator, Meldon, or Holne Moor.

Most moorland birds build their nests well-hidden on the ground, so please take great care to stay on marked tracks and keep your dogs under control. See our leaflet Birds of the open moor for more information.

Page last updated: 30 Jun 2014
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