The wild cherry tree is a hermaphrodite, both male and female, and more than a little poisonous. This didn’t stop the cuckoo falling in love with him (and her). It happened a very long time ago when the cuckoo was almost unknown, a plain, meek bird who produced only the smallest cheep when spoken to.
The cuckoo loved with true passion the cherry tree’s silky purplish-pink trunk, its cascade of wedding-white flowers, its red and luscious fruit.
‘You are the tree of my dreams,’ she cheeped, aroused for the first time to flights of fancy.
Sadly, the cherry tree did not reciprocate such feelings. ‘Get off, can’t you,’ it replied rudely. ‘You’re always hanging round here and it’s getting on my nerves.’
‘I’m only admiring you,’ peeped the cuckoo, deeply hurt.
‘Then don’t sit on me,’ answered the cherry, shaking its branches about in an attempt to dislodge her. ‘Your ugly mug is putting off other prettier birds.’
‘Like who?’ twittered the cuckoo, clinging on tight.
‘Like the blackbird, the goldfinch, the great tit, the woodchat, the chaffinch, the yellowhammer. They all have gumption, too. Even the sparrow has more gumption than you. Being so beautiful myself, I like a bird with a bit of go.’
If the cuckoo had not been so in love and so without gumption, she might have pecked off the tree’s delicate flowers with her sharp, curved beak. Instead she flew away and hid in the middle of a hawthorn tree while she considered her beloved’s cruel words.
Her mood was not improved when she heard how all the other birds were laughing at her discomfiture, showing off with their most elaborate trills and arpeggios. Even a far-off chicken cackled, and a passing owl hooted derisively. Worst of all was the lark, who laughed in an endlessly ascending scale of notes.
Even a far-off chicken cackled, and a passing owl hooted derisively.
The humiliation, however, gave her an idea. She was, as it happened, ready to lay an egg. This was usually a trying time because, being not at all talented at do-it-yourself, she had never mastered the art of nest-making. Half the time, her eggs fell through the nest and smashed on the ground.
Now, in one fell swoop, she would take her revenge on those mocking little birds and turn herself into just the sort of girl the wild cherry – not called ‘wild’ for nothing – would admire. That evening, she flew and hopped her way to a neat little nest, presently occupied by four little blue eggs but having just room for one more rather larger.
‘Now I’ve got gumption!’ the cuckoo exulted, flapping her wings.
Soon the cuckoo was the talk of the coppice. Now that the flowers of the wild cherry had given way to the fruit, a multitude of pretty little birds were gathered on its branches to peck at the cherries and complain loudly.
‘I’d only been gone a moment and there it was, a great big ugly egg,’ tweeted an outraged tit.
‘You must push it out!’ shrilled a large blackbird.
‘I could never do that,’ fluted the sweet voice of the willow warbler. ‘Give it to me. I shall foster it and bring it up as my own.’
‘It’ll eat you out of nest and home,’ warned the tit.
The wild cherry listened to them with its branches waving. It had never heard of any bird pulling such a fast one before. The cuckoo’s wickedness and guile excited the tree more and more. The bird would never be better than ugly, but handsome is as handsome does.
The next time the cuckoo flew nearby, the cherry tree dangled a bunch of fruit in front of her and whispered, ‘You’re quite a girl, I must say.’ It gently undulated its branches. ‘You’ll find the sweetest cherries near the back. A little more to the left. That’s it.’
As the cuckoo pecked, she felt her chest swell with pride. Suddenly a huge new song burst from her beak. ‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’
‘Ravissante, my crazy darling.’ The wild cherry swung her fruit in rhythm. ‘So individual. So arresting. You might almost say masculine. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made you famous.’
‘Ah, my love,’ responded the cuckoo, trying to sound modest, ‘without you, I would still be that dull, unknown bird, instead of a devil-may-care chanteuse with a big voice. I shall pay you the compliment of opening my beak for my first glorious “Cuckoo!” of the year at the very same moment you pop open your first exquisite flower.’
‘Charming!’ exclaimed the cherry tree. Bird and tree were lost in mutual admiration.
So it is that each year the cuckoo sings for the first time just as the first blossoms burst open on the wild cherry, and we all rejoice and cry out, ‘Spring is here!’.