with Gill Storey

I was reading a note of a radio programme on BBC R4 where a Professor Nick Davies was discussing the “extraordinary winged parasite, the cuckoo, whose unmistakeable (but rare) cry is usually first heard in mid-April.”  It is not rare here in the upper Agly valley, where its call can be irritatingly frequent.

Children’s cuckoo rhymes such as:

The cuckoo comes in April,
He sings his song in May,

In June he has another note,
In July he flies away.

are based on observation.  This behavioural description is true here too, as the cuckoo disappears again in July, heading for the hills of North Africa and beyond.

French has many children’s rhymes about cuckoos, which can be close to nonsense

 Coucou Hibou

Original French


A l’abri de la fougère In the shade of the bracken
Le coucou a chanté : Sang the cuckoo:
Réveille-toi bergère, Wake up, shepherdess,
Le coucou a chanté. Sang the cuckoo.
« Coucou, coucou, » Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Le coucou a chanté. Sang the cuckoo.
« Coucou, coucou, » Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Le coucou a chanté. Sang the cuckoo.
 Dans la forêt lointaine  In the distant forest
 On entend le coucou You hear the cuckoo
  Du haut de son grand chêne From the top of his great oak
 Lui répond le hibou Responds the owl.
« Coucou, coucou, » Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Le coucou fait le hibou Cuckoo says the owl.
« Coucou, coucou, » Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Le coucou fait le hibou. Cuckoo says the owl.

The owl appears in some of cuckoo poems because he is seen as judge and jury for the treacherous cuckoo. Incidentally, there are many words for owl in French ; hibou is the general name but here is a list of the various special names for the many types of owl.

Le hibou owl
La chouette owl
Chat-huant Brown owl
Chouette blanche Snowy owl
Chouette des bois Brown owl, wood owl

Chouette des clochers

Chouette effraie

Barn owl
Chouette hulotte Tawny owl
Grand-duc Eagle Owl

The oldest well-known cuckoo poem in English starts:

Sumer is icomen in
Lhude sing cucu.

It comes from a Latin original and may well have travelled via France..  Chaucer included the cuckoo in his poem, “The Parlement of Foules” as “the cukkow ever unkynde”; and Clement Janequin, in his long poem on birds, “Les Oyseaux”  (which derives in part from Chaucer) has this to say about the cuckoo:

« ………Arrière, maistre coucou,
Sortez de nos chapitres,
Chacun vous donne au hibou,
Car vous n’estes qu’un traistre.
Coucou, Coucou, Coucou…
Par trahison en chaque nid,
Pondez sans qu’on vous sonne. […]»


Begone, master cuckoo
Leave our assembly
Each of us gives you to the owl
Because you are just a traitor.
Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo
Betraying in each nest
Laying your eggs without being summoned.

So in English some of the poems about cuckoos deal with the association of cuckoos with betrayal and with planting “a cuckoo in the nest” – an illegitimate child..  Shakespeare, among others, makes a word play between “cuckoo” and “cuckold” in “When daisies pied”

The cuckoo was a byword for treason and betrayal, but nowadays we see it first of all as a harbinger of spring.

Any day now…………




  1. Reminders of A level English and French Studies 50 years ago. Thank you, learned author.

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