Rolling the Dice on Cuckoos

A new gambling market pegged to the iconic bird’s migration delivers for bettors and birds alike.

England's Common Cuckoos complete an epic spring migration. Starting out in West Africa, the birds fly 10,000 miles over the jungle, Sahara Desert, Mediterranean Sea, the entirety of continental Europe and then—phew—the English Channel, before finally arriving in England. While birders have always anxiously anticipated the cuckoos’ return, the birds this year had another, less likely group of invested followers tracking their progress: gamblers.

William Hill, one of the world’s most prominent bookies, teamed up with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) this winter to open a unique betting market, which laid odds on which of 17 tagged Cuckoos would make it home first. The collaboration’s primary goal is to raise awareness about the famous bird’s population plight, although the bookmaker made a donation of £1,000 ($1,533) to cuckoo work. While William Hill is still calculating how much money was bet on the cuckoos, Jon Ivan-Duke, a spokesman for the bookie, says they were "delighted with the interest"—there were hundreds of bets, though most were small.

"The average stake was just a few British pounds, which is typical of a market which nobody has ever bet on before—perhaps in years to come we will have specialist professionals wagering huge amounts on cuckoo races!" he says. "Each year we are hoping to grow the market to be a profitable venture and along with the BTO, raise awareness about this unique and brilliant species."

The Common Cuckoo community has shrunk by 65 percent in the past 30 years—only 16,000 breeding pairs still nest in the United Kingdom. In light of the birds’ decline, researchers from the BTO have been tracking them with satellite transmitters since 2011, so bettors this year were able to watch their birds trek home in real time.  (The migration alone is a nail-biter: Of the 50 original tagged birds, 33 have perished or lost their trackers since the project began. You can follow the rest of the flock’s progress here).

“Every time the cuckoo makes this perilous journey, it is the ultimate gamble of life and death,” Ivan-Duke said in a statement.

On April 17th, a victor was crowned, a newbie tagged last May named Hennah—after a British Naval Officer—who faced 25 to 1 odds and fears he had gone missing after blowing desert sand and canopy cover rendered his UV-powered tracker useless.

Each tracker costs £2,500 ($3,834) and requires roughly £60 ($92) a month to keep online, costs largely covered by public donations and individual cuckoo sponsorship. Paul Stancliffe, BTO’s media manager, says raising the profile of the project is very beneficial to the birds, widening the potential audience of funders. So in the end, whatever their final rank in the transcontinental race, every cuckoo came home a winner.

Learn more about BTO's work on cuckoos: