Ian Lycett: Colin it a day


Thursley Common in Surrey is a fine place to go birding. It hosts Woodlarks, Dartford Warblers, Common Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers, and a few years ago I twitched a Great Grey Shrike there. One species that I never expected to twitch there (or anywhere, ever) is Common Cuckoo. Then, in 2019, my colleague Ed Stubbs mentioned that 'Colin the Cuckoo' was back for another year and putting on several crowd-pleasing performances each day. Ed suggested that I really should go and see what it was all about.

So, I went. In the grassy area known as Parish Field, a photographer (or photographers) had set up a selection of photogenic logs and branches, variously adorned with moss and the like. This area was stocked with a very generous supply of mealworms. Colin liked mealworms. On that first visit, I joined the small group of fans in the field and waited. The feeding station was only around 10 m from where we were standing (or in many cases relaxing in foldable chairs) and I was sceptical that a cuckoo would come that close. 

I waited. Early morning turned into mid-morning and the mealworm supply was being steadily reduced by Woodlarks and European Stonechats. Patience was being tested, until a loud series of the familiar song from behind us announced that the show was about to start.

Colin swept in over us, dropped onto a lichen-covered log and posed beautifully. To the clicking of camera shutters, he started to fill his face with mealworms in the manner of an over-eager tourist at an all-inclusive breakfast buffet. One of the photographers threw a particularly large mealworm about halfway between us and Colin. Colin's eyes seemed to light up and he bounded over like an excitable puppy, held the prize in his bill like a cigar and looked extremely pleased with himself. After 20 minutes of binocular-, scope- and camera-filling action, Colin headed off to digest brunch and try to impress any nearby female cuckoos. It was a brilliant experience, repeated several times a day and enjoyed by many.

The mealworm-gobbling legend that was 'Colin' the Common Cuckoo appears to be no more, having failed to return to his favoured Surrey haunt this year (Steve Ray).


Record breaker

After eight years of defending his buffet from all interlopers, Colin must be the best-fed cuckoo of all time. A ready supply of high-energy snacks got him quickly into peak condition for breeding, and presumably set him up nicely for the 5,000-km journey back to Africa each year. With his demise, there may be a sharp fall in the share price of mealworm suppliers.

As far as we know, Colin is one of the longest-lived cuckoos. A distinctive mark on the retina of his right eye proved that it was the same bird returning each year and that would make him at least eight years old. The previous highest age documented was a bird that was just shy of turning seven when it was re-trapped in Norfolk in May 1983.

Colin is definitely the most-twitched and most-photographed Common Cuckoo ever. He posed on a constantly changing array of tree stumps, branches, rusted metal and garden tools and I was fully expecting to see photos of him entering the feeding arena through a series of flaming hoops. He filled many camera memory cards over the years, and he will certainly live long in the memory of many fellow birders and photographers.

I was watching the show again last year and got chatting to a birder who said he visited Thursley fairly regularly. Coincidentally his name was Colin, which had caused some initial confusion (and no little concern) in 2015 when he heard that people were looking for Colin at Thursley and feeding him mealworms. Now, sadly it appears that there is only one Colin regularly seen in Parish Field – and he doesn't (as far as I know) perform for food.


Written by: Ian Lycett