We go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, laugh at old Road Runner cartoons (road runners being cuckoos) and coo over the von Trapp children as they sing about cuckoo clocks. Yet we shudder at the subtext of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and associate cuckoos with deception and cuckoldry. Does any creature have a reputation as simultaneously silly and sinister as the cuckoo?
In Michael Robotham’s latest mystery, When You Are Mine, friendship tips into madness, and I doubt it is much of a spoiler to quote the main character’s fiancé saying angrily, “You brought this cuckoo into our nest.” Yet if the book is made into a film, I cannot imagine an actor delivering that line straight-faced.
The bias is western. Japan cherishes the cuckoo’s bright, rhythmic song because it heralds summer’s ease and warmth. The cuckoo sings in flight, the Japanese point out, thus represents a natural freedom. Hakuin, the Zen master who cheerfully stumped all of us with his koan about the sound of one hand clapping, wrote a haiku about an old monkey clapping both hands over his ears so he will hear only his own “monkey mind.” Unbeknownst to him, a cuckoo flies above him, open-mouthed, singing.
Even when not listening,
Lift up one hand—
We are as bad as that monkey, refusing to celebrate the bird and instead giggling at its monotonous and goofy call, cuck-oo, cuck-oo. Our adjective for someone “weak in intellect or common sense,” the word is usually said as an index finger circles the temple. Free, or mad? Sometimes the difference is hard to discern. When Aristophanes wrote of cloud-cuckoo land as a place of unrealistic fantasy, did he mean outright lunacy or just the presumptive delusion of expecting someone else to care for your offspring? Because that is the most disturbing talent of many cuckoo species: they are brood parasites, sneaking their eggs into another bird’s nest. In most cases, the nesting bird graciously hatches and feeds the baby cuckoo, a tiny Blanche Dubois relying on the kindness of strangers. Hence someone who is unwelcome or unwanted is the “cuckoo in the nest.” On occasion, that cuckoo will eject the other nestlings, kicking them to their death.
Yet the bird-inspired the cuckoo clock, which has amused and charmed us for three centuries. “The woman who worked in the cuckoo clock repair shop lived for 12:00 noon when all of the tiny doors flew open and the wooden birds sang, their carved beaks filling the store with their song,” writes Julie Dunlop in The Threepenny Review. “This was her anchor in the sea of jaded customers….” Wordsworth loved his cuckoo clock, too, but his wife loathed its incessant ticking and the annoyance of that wooden bird screeching forth on a steel spring every hour, so he stuck it in the hallway and primed it for guests.
Even carved in wood, the cuckoo is a mess of contradictions. The man credited for inventing it in 1730 was not even born until four years later, and there is a description of a mechanical cuckoo that dates to 1629. Though the classic Swiss chalet version of the cuckoo clock is now iconic, the first popularizations were made in Germany’s Black Forest and bore hunting scenes. Even Graham Greene was fooled: “In Switzerland,” he writes in The Third Man, “they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
We laugh, but the cuckoo as incompetent fool could not be further from the truth: cuckoos are wily. Sometimes their eggs are even colored to match the other species’s eggs, and the shell is thicker than usual, perhaps so it can survive a plummet into an alien nest—or withstand any rage at the intrusion. To be fair, sometimes the cuckoo has done both her offspring and its new cousins a favor. The chicks of the great spotted cuckoo, for example, release a foul, caustic slime when they sense a predator, thus protecting the baby crows as well as themselves.
Do we loathe cuckoos because they have figured out how to have it all, enjoy the sex and foist off the child-rearing? Are they the sort of unfit mothers we despise for burdening the foster-care system? Other animals, we demonize in self-interest—wolves because we fear they will kill our livestock, vultures because they remind us of our death. But what has the slender, solitary cuckoo ever done to deserve the West’s opprobrium, other than plop its progeny on someone else’s doorstep?
We do not like freeloaders, and we do not trust loners. Japan sees these birds as poignant symbols of unrequited love (unconsummated yearnings to cuckold?). India connects them to Kamadeva, the god of desire and longing. We link them to the ultimate shame of cuckoldry. Perhaps we are just more blunt; the cuckoo is, after all, a pre-Christian symbol of male fertility. Zeus tricked Hera into marrying him by taking the form of a wet, bedraggled cuckoo, so she would clasp him to her bosom. (The details are perhaps best left unrecorded.)
In truth, cuckoos are just medium-sized birds who like to sun themselves after a heavy rain, because their soft feathers become waterlogged. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica. There are stones and other prehistoric cult sites named for cuckoos all over Britain. Their use as metaphor persists: in the British sitcom Cuckoo, the title character is “a slacker full of outlandish, New Age ideas.” Those who live in the fantasy of cloud cuckoo land, a place given a fresh lease in Anthony Doerr’s latest novel, say or do things that make sense only to themselves, yet are not as deranged as they seem, and even possess a sneaky cleverness. Back in 1920, Austrian economist Yuri Maltsev described “the disastrous consequences of enforcing the utopia on the unfortunate populations of the communist states…. Despite the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roasted pigeons failed to fly into the mouths of the comrades.”
I ask myself why, as Trump fights for power and Russia menaces Ukraine, I am making silly notes about cuckoos. The question may contain the answer.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.