Collaborating to conserve cuckoos

24th August 2016

As the British summer draws to a close, we will soon be dusting off our winter coats and wellington boots. Not so for the common cuckoo; this much-loved species has already taken flight on an epic 3,200-km journey, ultimately settling for the winter under sunny African skies.

UK populations of this globe-trotting species have declined over the last 20 years. The issue of declining summer migrant populations, and the possible reasons behind these declines, is one that has been examined by a CCI collaboration between the BTO, RSPB, and the University of Cambridge departments of Zoology and Geography.

Such collaboration builds on the avian-tracking work that individual CCI partners have been undertaking for a number of years, particularly the BTO, which has been using satellite-tags to track cuckoo migration pathways since 2011. A recent paper by Chris Hewson of the BTO revealed that cuckoos use two routes to reach central Africa, one via Italy and the other, with higher associated mortality, via Spain. 

So far, so research-based. Enter, in 2015, Toby Smith, reportage photographer and Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence with the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute. Following conversations with a number of the CCI partner organisations and with funding from the BTO/SWLA Flight Lines project, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and two anonymous donors, Toby headed to Gabon in the winter of 2016 with storyteller Malcom Green, to capture the landscape of the cuckoos’ winter home. 

Smith says, ‘I wondered whether I could follow the cuckoos to Africa. No-one really knows what the cuckoo finds there’.

As Chris Hewson explains further, ’Future land use change in the Gabon is likely to accelerate, so to have Toby’s eye-witness account now is really important. Even finding that people rarely see cuckoos there is instructive for us – it shows what we are going to be up against when we go out there.’

Toby’s images are a striking complement to the ongoing work of the BTO, and others, in their continued research into the declines of some of the UK’s summer visitors. Their story-telling power has recently been put to good use in The Guardian newspaper, which featured a subset of Toby’s photos from this project. 

Their value goes beyond the mere aesthetic, however; they have a power to transcend disciplines. As CCI project collaborator, Professor Bill Adams of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography puts it: ‘My hope is that Toby’s work will contribute towards a common understanding between ornithological researchers and development researchers about the way people and birds share landscapes.’

For more information about the cuckoo tracking work, and Toby Smith’s involvement in this, see here.

Toby Smith’s photos can be viewed on his website.

Near real time maps showing the movements of the BTO’s satellite-tagged cuckoos can be accessed on the BTO website.