I don't like February.  It is a month synonymous with cold, grey days, man-flu and the end of Arsenal's title ambitions.  To make matters worse, this year, February is one day longer.  

To cheer myself up, I have been reading Nick Davies' wonderful book about the harbinger of spring, the cuckoo (see here).  Drawing on thirty years of research he describes the cuckoo's curious breeding habits and meticulously deciphers how the cuckoo and those species whose nests are parasitised have evolved.  

Reading about Nick's time on Wicken Fen is to be transported forward to the sights and sounds of spring and summer; seasons that are just round the corner but seemingly out of reach as February drags on.  

To many of us the cuckoo and its breeding habits are easy to take for granted.  Last year, I enjoyed shocking a group of 90 kids when I gave a talk my daughter's year group on migration. They didn't seem particularly surprised by the scale and extent of bird migration (brilliantly brought to life for example by BTO's tracking research here), but jaws gratifyingly dropped when I showed them the image below of a newly hatched cuckoo chick ejecting reed warbler eggs from nest. 

Mike Richards, rspb-images-com

I hope that all these children get to hear, even if they don't ever see a cuckoo.  

Yet, this is a species, like many of our summer migrants that have experienced massive declines: recent figures suggest that populations of nearly half of our summer migrants have declined in the last three decades. Alarmingly, one in ten of Europe's migratory species is now considered to be of global conservation priority.  The last decade has seen declines of between 37 - 66% in the UK breeding populations of the cuckoo, spotted flycatcher, turtle dove, nightingale and wood warbler.

The RSPB is giving more attention to this group of species and has over the past few years developed our Birds without Borders programme (see here).  Working with many partners (especially through Birdlife International) we are trying to understand the reasons for their decline but also to do something about it here in the UK on their breeding grounds but also on migration and in their wintering grounds.  

As Nick Davies writes at the end of his book...

"...the current scale and pace of change is unprecedented, involving climate change, habitat destruction and fragmentation, ever more intensive farming and fishing, urbanisation, and a new biotic environment of invasive species, pathogens and parasites.  When I was a young boy, I thought there would always be cuckoos calling to greet the spring, and swifts would forever scythe the skies on hot summer days.  But the alarming declines in populations of these and many other familiar species mean that our generation will surely be the last to take the natural world for granted."

We want people to take cuckoo and the wonders of nature for granted.  

To do that, we need transformational change in the way that we humans interact with the natural world.

So, as it's a leap year, why not promise to do something transformational to mark 29 February.  

As luck would have it, tomorrow we shall be having a small celebration to mark the operation of our wind turbine at the Lodge - a project that will deliver electricity equivalent to half of the RSPB's requirements for all 127 of our sites.

And, tomorrow I shall also promise to show my daughter a cuckoo this year.  The more contact with the natural world young people have, the more they will grow to cherish it.  And if they cherish it, then they'll fight for it.

So, go on, take a leap for the cuckoo and for all nature.

John Bridges (rspb-images.com)