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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Cuckoos: Spring, Music and Cuckoldry

Updated: Apr 16


The cuckoo’s call inspires music and signifies the arrival of spring. The bird’s habits, on the other hand, symbolize cuckoldry in Portugal and Europe.

Cuckold is a derisive word for a man whose wife is unfaithful to him, from early 13th century, kukewald, cokewold, from Old French cucuault, from cocu (cuckoo) + perjorative suffix -ault, of Germanic origin. It is so called from the female bird’s alleged habit of changing mates, or her authentic habit of leaving eggs in another bird’s nest, according to Online Etymology Dictionary. The wife of an adulterous husband is a cuckquean.

Catalonian men, who dare to marry on March 19 (St. Joseph’s Day for Catholics and, in Portugal, Father’s Day), were said to become cuckolds. That day is when it is said that cuckoos start singing, according to Francisco Vaz da Silva, in his paper, The Madonna and the Cuckoo: An Exploration in European Symbolic Conceptions, (2004), University of Lisbon.

“For this reason, they say in Portugal, ‘St. Joseph gave it speech’. What such ‘speech’ means is plain.

“In northern Portugal, to state in jest that, in some neighboring hamlet, the cuckoo starts singing early carries the implication that men there get horned (corno, an allusion to stags who forfeit their mates when defeated by another male) early in the year. In the same region, ‘one calls a man whose wife is unfaithful a cuckoo,’” (cuco).

“Little Cuckoo”

One used to ask a pregnant woman whether she already was making baby clothes for her little cuckoo.

“Indeed, people used to call small children ‘little cuckoos’. And José Leite de Vasconcelos, the turn-of-the-century ethnographer from whom I am getting this information, specifies that people would advise childless couples to ‘go take the clothes to the cuckoo.’”, according to Francisco Vaz da Silva.

Song and Plumage Vary

Cuckoos are found throughout the world. Most are gray or brown. In the tropics, some have brilliant plumage.

The song of the cuckoo comes in many varieties, but it is the simple, distinctive call of the common or European cuckoo that has captured composers’ hearts over the years -- just two notes in the interval of a major or minor third, according to WFMT, an FM-radio station in Chicago (April 26, 2018).

Cuckoo Call in Music


Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op.68, II, “Scene by the brook”

In the Pastoral Symphony’s second movement, three birds make themselves heard: flute for the nightingale, oboe for the quail, and two clarinets for the cuckoo.


Handel: Organ Concerto in F major, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”

The organ plays the two familiar notes of the cuckoo followed by the florid song of the nightingale.


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