How do you catch a Cuckoo?

Putting up a mist net

Stuffed female Cuckoo, used to attract males into the nets.

Catching Cuckoos is not an easy task. They are notorious for getting out of nets and many a ringer has stories of chasing a Cuckoo along a net line, only for it to get out the other end. Being large, long-winged and with soft plumage they do not tend to get caught up in small-mesh nets a new method was required. Fortunately, we were able to seek advice and help from a number of sources including colleagues from the University of Copenhagen (Kasper Thorup and Mikkel Kristensen) and BTO bird ringers, Paul Noakes and Justin Walker.

Perfect kit for catching Cuckoos

Paul Noakes is an expert Cuckoo catcher and for this project had invested in two new large-mesh mist nets. Mist nets are made of fine nylon mesh suspended between poles- a very effective method for safely catching birds. The large-mesh nets proved to be perfect for catching Cuckoos and every bird that entered the net was caught.

Understanding Cuckoo behaviour

Having the right gear is only part of the solution. Catching birds can be more of an art than science, and it is useful to understand how birds behave before setting out to catch them.

Male Cuckoos like to sit on tall trees and sing the ‘Cuck-oo’ song that everyone is familiar with. To catch them you need to get them to come down low. The ideal site is a low isolated bush well away from any tall trees. Two nets are put around the bush in a V-shape and in the middle a recording of the female’s bubbling call and the male’s Cuckoo is played. Thinking a female and possibly a rival are in the area, the male will come to investigate, often dive-bombing in low within seconds of playing the tape. Paul had an additional trick up his sleeve, namely a stuffed female Cuckoo on a post. She proved her worth on a number of occasions as at least two birds attempted to mate with her. However, when a real live female was around, there was no contest, and we had a number of fruitless catching sessions where males spent their time chasing real females and took no notice of our set up at all.

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