The Wild Cherry Tree (Prunus avium)
The Wild Cherry Tree is a hermaphrodite, both male and female, and more than a little poisonous. But this didn’t stop the cuckoo falling in love with him (and her). It happened a very very long time ago when the cuckoo was almost unknown, a meek, plain bird who gave only the smallest cheep when spoken to.
The cuckoo loved with true passion the Cherry tree’s silky pink-purplish trunk, its cascade of wedding-white flowers, its red and luscious fruit.
‘You are the tree of my dreams,’ she cheeped, aroused for the first time to flights of fancy.
Sadly, the cherry tree did not reciprocate such feelings. ‘Get off, can’t you,’ it replied rudely, ‘You’re always hanging round here and it’s getting on my nerves.’
‘I’m only admiring you,’ peeped the cuckoo, deeply hurt.
‘Then don’t sit on me,’ answered the cherry, even more crossly. ‘Your ugly mug is putting off other prettier birds.’
‘Like who?’ twittered the cuckoo, clinging on tight to the branches because the cherry had started shaking them about in an attempt to dislodge her.
‘Like the blackbird, the goldfinch, the great tit, the wood chat, the chaffinch, the yellowhammer. They all have gumption too. Even the sparrow has more gumption than you. Being so beautiful myself, I like a bird with a bit of go.’
If the cuckoo had not been in love and not been so without gumption, she might have become enraged and knocked off the tree’s delicate flowers with her sharp, curved beak. Instead she flew away and hid in the middle of a hawthorn bush while she considered her beloved’s cruel words.
Her mood was not improved when she heard how all the other birds were laughing at her discomfiture, showing off with their most elaborate trills and arpeggios. Even a far-off chicken cackled and a passing owl hooted derisively. Worst of all was the lark who laughed in an endlessly ascending scale of notes.
The humiliation, however, gave her an idea. She was, as it happened, ready to lay an egg. This was usually a trying time because, being not at all talented at do-it-yourself, she had never mastered the art of nest-making. Half the time, her eggs fell through the nest and smashed on the ground.
Now, at one fell swoop, she would take her revenge on those mocking little birds and turn herself into just the sort of girl the wild cherry – not called ‘wild’ for nothing – would admire. One dusky evening, she flew and hopped her way to a neat little nest, presently occupied by four little blue eggs but having just room enough for one more rather larger.
‘Now I’m a Bad Bird!’ the cuckoo exulted, flapping her wings.
Soon the cuckoo was the talk of the coppice. Since the flowers of the wild cherry had given way to the fruit, a multitude of pretty little birds were gathered on its branches, pecking the cherries and complaining loudly.
‘I’d only been gone a moment and there it was, a great big ugly egg,’ tweeted an outraged tit.
‘You must push it out!’ shrilled a large lady blackbird and she expertly spat out a cherry stone from the side of her beak.
‘I could never do that,’ fluted the sweet voice of the willow warbler. ‘I shall foster it and bring it up as my own.’
‘’It’ll eat you out of nest and home,’ warned the tit who’d tweeted first.
The wild cherry listened to all this with her branches flapping. Just as the cuckoo had hoped, she became more and more excited by the wickedness and guile of the cuckoo. The tree had never heard of any bird pulling such a fast one before. She would never be better than ugly but handsome is as handsome does.
So the next time the cuckoo flew nearby, the cherry tree dangled a bunch of fruit in front of her invitingly. When the cuckoo landed, it whispered seductively, ‘You’re quite a girl I must say.’ It gently undulated its branches. ‘You’ll find the sweetest cherries near the back. A little more to the left. That’s it.’
As the cuckoo pecked happily (she didn’t even have an egg to bother about), she felt her chest swell with pride and suddenly a huge new song burst from her beak.
‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’
‘Ravissante, my crazy darling.’ The wild cherry swung her fruit in rhythm. ‘So individual. So arresting. Almost, one might say, masculine. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made you famous.’
‘Ah, my love,’ responded the cuckoo, trying to sound modest, ‘without you, I would still be that dull, unknown bird, (she couldn’t bring herself to say’ugly’) instead of the devil-may-care chanteuse with a big voice. I shall pay you the compliment of opening my beak for my first glorious ‘Cuckoo!’ of the year at the very same moment that you unfurl your first exquisite flower.’
‘Charming!’ exclaimed the cherry tree and bird and tree were lost in mutual admiration.
So it is that each year the cuckoo sings for the first time just as the first flowers burst open on the wild cherry and we all rejoice and cry out, ‘Spring is here!’
Printed in the Woodland Trust’s collection of short stories ‘Why Willows Weep’.