Country diary: A cuckoo unleashes the fury of the pipits | Ed Douglas

Just over the horizon from Sheffield lies a triangle of moorland trapped between three busy roads. There’s a venerable pub on one corner and on the opposite side a fast, straight road that isolates this 100‑acre pocket from the rest of Totley Moss. It doesn’t exactly seem a propitious location for moments that sear into your memory, but this triangle often surprises. I’ve seen small groups of red deer, apparently marooned; a short-eared owl sliding through the dusk in summer; and a curlew floating earthward just feet in front of me, burbling softly as it reached its nest.

Today’s encounter was full of tension. Cycling the mile-long straight, I glanced up to see a cuckoo racing ahead of two meadow pipits. The cuckoo had that phlegmatic expression of the rumbled conman. The pipits were furious and chasing hard, despite the almost laughable contrast in size, achieving a kind of purity in their rage, whereas there was something counterfeit about the cuckoo’s form – its head pigeon-like, except for the glaring yellow of the eyes, the chest barred like a sparrowhawk to put the frighteners on, the tail stretched improbably.

Pipits are a favourite mark on the heath and moor for cuckoos to parasitise, just as reed warblers are on wetlands and the dunnock once was on farmland, before cuckoo numbers there crashed. They rely for food on the hairy caterpillars of certain moths, which is why, up here at 1,200 feet, they still prosper, while down below, not so much. The cuckoo’s smoke-and-mirrors appearance and counterfeit eggs offer no protection from loss of habitat.

We love the con artist, at a distance, for daring where we don’t – but save some admiration for their victims, or in this case, near victims. The egg the cuckoo lays, with astonishing dexterity and speed, has evolved to fool the host into believing it is one of its own. If the pipits spot the interloper quickly enough, or the nest seems too full, they abandon their nest and their own eggs, along with the cuckoo’s. And if a cuckoo, like this one, is spotted approaching, the pipit’s tiny fury is unleashed.


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