Cuckoo tagging project could solve one of Ireland’s ‘most intriguing natural mysteries’

A joint Irish-UK scheme will track exactly where the birds go when they depart Ireland in mid-summer

One of Ireland’s “most intriguing natural mysteries” could soon be solved – where do Irish cuckoos spend their winter months?

A joint Irish-UK project is now tagging Irish cuckoos to see exactly where they go when they depart Ireland in mid-summer.

Little is known about the migratory routes they take or exactly where in Africa they end up.

Last month, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) linked up with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to begin tracking Irish birds that might reveal a little bit more about their movements.


The Cuckoo Tracking Project chose three birds were from Killarney National Park in Kerry and one from the Burren National Park in Clare.

Named and fitted with satellite tags, their movements will now be closely followed and displayed on a dedicated new page on the Killarney National Park website.

“We’ve already seen one of the birds fly from Killarney National Park to Tipperary over the bank holiday weekend and another has shot across to the east Cork coast before double-backing to Limerick,” said Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan, who has responsibility for the NPWS.

“It will be fantastic to get a full picture of the movements of these birds at home, during their migration and when they hopefully return to our shores.”

The project partner is highly experienced in this area. In 2011, the BTO undertook similar efforts and as of the end of last year, more than 100 adult cuckoos have been tagged across Britain.

As well as migratory routes, it has helped inform researchers about some of the pressures the birds face enroute.

The big question for birdwatchers in Ireland, according to the NPWS, is whether Irish Cuckoos face the same issues or undertake a different migration strategy with different challenges.

The Cuckoo has a long, fabled history in Ireland as a harbinger of summertime. It typically arrives in the last days of April, often referred to as “the time of the cuckoo”, and remain until early July.

Population trends show large declines across England and Wales, with increases in Scotland and relative stability in Ireland, the NPWS said.

However, across Ireland there has been a 27 per cent reduction in breeding distribution between the first national census (1968-1972) and the most recent Bird Atlas (2007-2011). In the UK the decline rate has been recorded at 40 per cent.

Dr Chris Hewson, BTO research ecologist and lead scientist on the project, said the new data would help them understand reasons behind population declines.

“It’s especially exciting to see birds from Ireland tagged for the first time - we’re looking forward to learning for the first time about the migrations of these cuckoos from the western extremity of the species’ breeding range,” he said.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times