When scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) attached a satellite tag to a Cuckoo in Suffolk back in 2016, they had no idea that it would still be providing them with information on the amazing movements of these birds in 2022. Sadly, they have announced that their star bird, PJ, has died at his breeding grounds in Suffolk, bringing to a close an extraordinary chapter in the history of bird migration research.
Last year, PJ broke the record for the number of migrations completed by a tagged Cuckoo, covering a total of 60,000 miles (96,000 km). At around 7 years old, he was approaching the age of the oldest known UK Cuckoo when he died.
All tagged Cuckoos provide us with valuable data in our quest to safeguard the future of this beguiling species, which has declined by 71% in England and 38% in the UK overall since 1995,. We are only able to follow most birds for around a year, so PJ’s achievements – and the longevity of his tag – exceeded our wildest expectations.
BTO research has revealed that Cuckoos migrate to central Africa for the winter and to get there they follow one of two routes – via either Spain or Italy. Usually, Cuckoos follow the same route year after year. However, PJ’s tag showed that he used both, revealing that Cuckoos are not always tied to one route. It may have been this flexibility that allowed PJ to avoid the worst weather conditions during his journeys and survive as long as he did.
PJ was named in memory of Pamela Joy Miller, whose family wanted to celebrate the love of birds she passed on to her nieces and nephews and their children. PJ acquired many admirers during the six years we were able to follow him, so Pamela’s memory reached far and wide.
We began tagging Cuckoos in 2011 and have since uncovered their wintering grounds and the different routes they take to and from the Congo Basin each year. Differences in survival between birds using different routes to reach the winter quarters appear to contribute to regional differences in population trends.
BTO scientists are tagging another eight Cuckoos this year, two of them close to where PJ was tagged back in 2016. You can find out more and sponsor a Cuckoo at www.bto.org/cuckoos.
Dr Chris Hewson, Lead Scientist on the project at the BTO, said: ‘It’s always a shame to lose one of our tagged Cuckoos. As we’ve been able to follow six years of his truly epic migrations and see how they have changed over his lifetime, this is especially true of PJ. Like all of our tagged cuckoos, he provided vital data in our quest to understand the species’ migrations and population decline, but because of his longevity PJ has left a particularly special mark amongst his followers and admirers.”