The UK’s cuckoo population has fallen by 70% over the last 25 years. Birds migrate to western Africa for the winter, where they inhabit landscapes that are undergoing rapid economic and environmental transition. Photojournalist Toby Smith followed a group of migrating cuckoos to Gabon, in order to document and understand the social and environmental conditions that could be instrumental in their decline.

Ultimately more research is vital. My hope is that Toby’s work will contribute towards a common understanding between ornithological researchers and development researchers about the way people and birds share landscapes.

Professor Bill Adams

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has tagged a group of 50 migrating cuckoos with lightweight satellite-tracking devices. Collecting data from these tags has enabled a research team to track the migration routes used by UK cuckoos, enabling a better understanding of what happens to them when they leave the UK in the late summer. The cuckoos use two different routes to reach the same wintering grounds in the west of Africa; one route takes them south-east through Italy and across both the Mediterranean and Sahara, the other takes them through Spain and across the Straits of Gibraltar, before skirting the western end of the Sahara. Birds using the latter route suffer a higher rate of mortality.

‘We expect birds like cuckoos, swallows, swifts and nightingales to rock up here [in the UK] every summer’, said Professor Bill Adams from Cambridge University’s Department of Geography, who was involved in the project, ‘ but what if they don’t arrive?’

The ESRC IAA fund enabled Toby Smith to make a photographic study of the migration pathways of satellite-tagged cuckoos and their wintering grounds in Africa. Although the migratory routes of these birds are now well documented, little is understood about the socio-economic reasons behind the climate and landscape change which is so badly affecting their survival rates. The ‘Chasing Cuckoos’ project sought to create a photographic outreach study of the birds’ winter habitat in the forests and grasslands of Gabon and the communities of people who live and work in these landscape, in order to increase global understanding of the social and economic factors driving the alterations in land usage.

Smith travelled from the Batéké Plateau, an ancient volcanic mesa on the border between The Republic of Congo and Gabon, to the tropical forests of inland Gabon. On route, he photographed local communities, agricultural practices and land usage, documenting the natural and social habitat of these birds. Through interactions with the regions’ villagers and hunters, including the use of a recording of a cuckoo’s call, he came to understand that many were simply not aware that they were sharing an environment with these birds.

'Spotting a cuckoo would have been fantastic,' says Smith,' but from a visual perspective, it wouldn’t have told us anything new. I wasn’t there as a birdwatcher, I was there as a documentary photographer. I was more interested in experiencing and engaging with the natural and social landscape of these birds.'

The survival of birds like the cuckoo that migrate to Africa in the northern winter is closely linked to land cover and hence land use. Government policies across Africa are understandably focused on the development needs of their people, and, as Adams has said, ‘often what is good news for people – adapting land to create work and food– is bad news for birds unless there is a sophisticated understanding of the implications of habitat requirements.’ Trees are manifestly essential for cuckoos to survive, but there are official plans to make Gabon into Africa’s largest producer of palm oil which will involve the clearing of huge swathes of forest to make way for plantations.  

Smith’s photographic expertise offered an opportunity for landscape practices, such as woodland management and agricultural organisation, to be shown through the lens of an on-the-ground, eye witness account. Aside from bringing the welfare of Afro-European migratory birds into the media spotlight, his photographs also represent the human angle in a struggle for survival which is not limited to the cuckoo.

Smith’s photographs have been featured in The Guardian, are available online at www.tobysmith.com, have been widely publicised on Twitter and are currently on display in the David Attenborough Building at the University of Cambridge. Contributing to the BTO’s Flight Lines project, which seeks to highlight the challenges that migrant birds face for a wider public audience, ‘Chasing Cuckoos’ was an ambitious photography, communication, citizen-science and outreach project which supports ongoing research about the effects of African land use change on many of our beloved migratory bird species.