Tag Archives: The Times

Messing with the data

Last week, walking through the Marks & Spencer’s Newport Isle of Wight store, my attention was caught by a distant croaking bird song “ca-caw, ca-caw” — Russell, the wilderness explorer scout from Disney/Pixar’s Up personified. This has become the ‘Oi, we’re over here‘ call of choice for my family. And it works very well.

My father had a similar call for when, out on elaborate rambles (usually trespassing), he and I would get separated. If I’d stopped for a few minutes to examine a mouldering log and he had walked on through the woods, he would then give a perfectly passable rendition of a cuckoo to indicate where in the impenetrable thicket he had suddenly found himself alone. This was my cue to chivvy myself up and hurry along.

I’ve often wondered if his mimicry had ever confused a local ornithologist into miss-recording what was fast becoming a relatively scarce bird in Britain. Perhaps someone had even written in to The Times to report an unusual location, or unseasonal occurrence.

It turns out that he was not the first to have potentially messed with the data.

It seems that the tradition of writing into the papers to report the first cuckoo of the year began on 4 February 1913, when naturalist and geologist James Lydekker wrote to The Times to announce he had distinctly heard one, not a quarter of a mile from his Harpenden home. This was an unprecedented early date, some 2 months before the usual arrival of these migratory birds.

Unfortunately, he was forced to recant his observation a few days later when it transpired that it was not an avian songster, but a bricklayer’s labourer working on a house nearby. The British public rose with the usual semi-sarcastic mockery and have been writing in every year to enquire whether their local cuckoo was, indeed, the first to be heard calling that year.

Luckily Russell’s ‘ca-caw ca-caw’ is unlikely to result in any miss-reported bird species. The data is safe.