The Oxford English Dictionary notes that: "It is a migratory bird, arriving in the British Islands in April, and hence welcomed as the 'harbinger of spring'; it does not hatch its own offspring, but deposits its eggs in the nests of small birds, as the hedge-sparrow, water-wagtail, yellow-hammer, and others; to this peculiarity many allusions occur."
It also gives a variety of forms of the word - cuccu, coccou, cockou, cukkow, cokkow, cocow, kockowe, cucko, cauko, kukkowe, cuckowe, cocowe, cokowe, cokoue, koko, kookoo, cokow, coockow, cuckoe, cukcow, cockow, cuckow, and cuckoo.
The noun comes from the French coucou (originally cucu), which is a noun derived from imitating the cry of the bird. I've left the Whitnash form in as an example of the fluidity of English forms of words - Hindu is also another such word which can appear as Hindoo. The standardisation of modern English was still not set in stone in 1863, and it is sometimes useful to remember that spellings change over time.
The earliest mention of cuckoos (in England) is in the English round of around 1240 - "Sumer Is Icumen In", which comes from the manuscript known as the "Reading Rota" because it came from Reading Abbey:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
This translates to modern English as:
Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
And the wood springs anew,
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
Don't you ever stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
And so to Whitnash, and the Gardner's Notes, followed by a poem also in the magazine celebrating April. "April Showers" is something of a cliché, so it is nice to have different imagery in this poem - "April smiles and April tears", which still does sum up the weather even today:
Whitnash Parish Magazine - April 1863
We welcome April's smiles and tears as a sign that winter now is past, and the brighter sunshine and the lengthened days are preparing us for the glory and beauty of the coming summer. But through this month very little foliage is to be seen on the trees, Or in the hedges.
The birds are busy making preparations for their young families, and we hail from time to time the arrival of the Swallow, Nightingale, Cookoo, and other birds who had been strangers during the long winter months. March generally takes leave of us in a gale of wind and carries off' wintry clouds along with him.
In this month plenty of blossoms shew themselves on the fruit trees. The almond-tree, the plum-tree, the cherry-tree, the peach, the nectarine, and apricot put forth their promise of fruit-a promise frequently broken by the recurrence of late frosty nights.
THE GARDEN.-Plant potatoes, taking care to obtain good- seed potatoes of a medium size, and of the best quality known in the neighbourhood. It is a foolish thing to reserve the refuse of potatoes for seed. The early kinds may be in drills within twenty inches of each other, but for the late kinds there ought to be from two and a half to three feet between then. Sow cauliflowers for autumn use. Finish off asparagus-beds. Sow carrots for succession; also peas, beans, lettuces, radishes, and cress. Plant Jerusalem artichokes. Towards the end of the month sow dwarf French beans, scarlet runners, and red beet. Sow celery, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cottager's kale.
Fork sea-kale beds which have finished cutting. Examine gooseberry-bushes, and destroy grubs. Keep down weeds. Prick out lettuces, celery, and kale. Examine strawberry-beds, and remove dead leaves, but do not disturb the roots. Thin out parsnips. Nail wall-fruit trees, and keep them clear of insects. Growing plants in frames should now receive more air and water. Fumigate to destroy green fly as soon as the first appears.
Begin to harden off bedding plants, and sow hardy annuals and perennials. Pinch off the tops of chrysanthemums. Prune tender roses. Prepare vacant flower beds for their summer occupants. Stir the soil among growing crops; clean gravel; trim hedges, and maintain neatness.
April smiles and April tears,
Welcome them together;
Clouds and sunshine, hopes and fears,
Make up April weather;
Clouds that fall in showers of blessing,
Sunshine all the earth caressing;
Smiles and tears alternate chase,
Down sweet April's loving face.
Tender, watchful mother, she
Night nor day is sleeping;
Seed and flower, and herb and tree,
Are all in her keeping-
Kept with all a mother's pleasure
Each her own peculiar treasure;
O'er the mead the cowslip flinging,
in the dell the blue-bell bringing,
While the orchis decks the scene
With her leaves of spotted green.
Happy season! not in vain
Is thy verdant dressing,
Wakening earth to life again,
All creation blessing.
He who bids the flower awaken,
Never has His truth forsaken ;
Still his mercy shall prevail,
Nor blessed spring-time ever fail.