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Classical Sprouts: The Cuckoo Bird

From cereal to clocks, the cuckoo bird has definitely flown its way into pop culture.

But this quintessential springtime bird has also inspired all kinds of music!

First, let's get to know the cuckoo - the term "cuckoo," a great example of onomatopoeia, actually refers to a family of birds that includes the roadrunner, too.

Each spring, large groups of cuckoos migrate north from Africa to Europe, so for those in the north, a cuckoo's first call of the year marks the start of spring.

The cuckoo's been a significant bird for a long time.

In fact, it's mentioned in one of the oldest known songs ever written in English, "Sumer Is Icumen In."

The song, written more than 800 years ago, is sung in a round, and describes the coming of spring and various excited farm animals, including a singing cuckoo bird.

Sumer Is Icumen In

Composers have also tried to musically recreate the cuckoo's call.

Heinrich Biber used the cuckoo's call, along with many other animal sounds, in his "Sonata Representativa" for violin.

Some cuckoos call the United States home, too.

Clawhammer banjo player and singer Clarence Ashley famously recorded the American folk tune "The Cuckoo Bird," in 1929, and since then, other banjo players have been trying to recreate the special techniques he used.

Here's another strange fact about the cuckoo: they lay their eggs in other birds' nests!

And once they hatch, cuckoo chicks' calls can be so loud and demanding that when they're hungry they can even convince random other birds to feed them!

Apparently sharing really is caring when it comes to cuckoos.

Composer Ottorino Respighi did some sharing when he wrote cuckoo-inspired music, too.

His suite "The Birds" was inspired by baroque composer Bernardo Pasquini's music, and in it, he captures more than just bird calls, with sounds of fluttering wings and scratching feet.

And finally, as we mentioned, the cuckoo's calls are also an exciting signal that winter is over and spring has arrived.

Listen to the episode to see if Frederick Delius's "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring" cures your winter blues!

More cuckoo facts:

  • Their wingspans can reach up to about 2 ft.
  • Cuckoo chicks hatch in just 12 days!
  • Other languages' words for cuckoo are similar - French: coucou, Japanese: kakkō (カッコウ), German: Kuckuck

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Classical Sprouts is produced by Emily Duncan Wilson. Kacie Brown is the digital content manager.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Emily Duncan Wilson is the producer of "Kids Commute."