The cuckoo has been long considered as a bird of omen. Gay, in his Shepherd's Week, in the fourth Pastoral, notes the vulgar superstitions on first hearing the bird sing in the season:--
"When first the year, I heard the cuckoo sing,
And call with welcome note the budding Spring,
I straightway set a running with such haste,
Deb'rah that won the smock scarce ran so fast.
Till spent for lack of breath, quite weary grown,
Upon a rising bank I sat adown,
And doff'd my shoe, and by my troth I swear,
Therein I spied this yellow frizzled hair,
As like to Lubberkin's in curl and hue,
As if upon his comely pate it grew."
The present writer can remember that, during his youth in the North of England, boys on first hearing the cuckoo would take out of their pockets the money lying therein (if any) and spit on it for luck. The habit was not elegant, but Sir Henry Ellis refers to the practice as marking the northern counties in particular: "It is vulgarly accounted an unlucky omen if you have no money in your pocket when you hear the cuckoo for the first time in a season."
What is the origin of this superstition? It can only be this: that all birds signifying the advent of spring are regarded as welcome messengers of the return of life to the earth. They bring good news; their coming is omen-ous of better things--like the coming of the swallow, who shares the good luck omen of the cuckoo.