Farewell Flappy

At 20:17 and 24 seconds China time on 17 May 2018 we received what we think will be the last transmission from a satellite tag fitted to a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) named Flappy McFlapperson.

The transmission was the last of a series since 14 May that showed two important pieces of information: first, increasing temperature fluctuations and second, a rapidly depleting battery charge.  The first information is significant; a healthy bird’s body temperature will offset the fluctuations in ambient temperature from day to night, meaning that the temperature of the tag remains relatively constant.  Significant fluctuations in temperature are a tell-tale sign that all is not well.  The second piece of information about battery depletion, in itself, is not necessarily a bad sign but when combined with the temperature data, it adds weight to the view that something is amiss.  Whilst, theoretically, these symptoms could occur if the tag becomes detached from the body, this scenario is unlikely given the design of the harness used.  Sadly, the conclusion must be that Flappy McFlapperson perished sometime during the night of 14-15 May 2018.

The most recent transmissions from Flappy’s tag, received on 17 May 2018, put her around 100km north of Mandaly and 30km east of the Irrawaddy River.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Flappy McFlapperson, or “Flappy” as she was affectionately known, will be missed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world.

It was on 24 May 2016, at Cuihu Urban Wetland in northern Beijing, that the first cuckoo, a female, was fitted with a tag as part of the Beijing Cuckoo Project, a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (BWRRC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing, and supported by the British Birds Charitable Trust, the Oriental Bird Club, Zoological Society of London and BirdLife International.  The project was designed to combine scientific discovery with public engagement.  The aims were twofold: first, to find out, for the first time, where cuckoos from East Asia spent the winter and how they got there, and second, to reach and enthuse the public about the incredible journeys made by Beijing’s birds (BTO’s work tracking cuckoos from the UK has demonstrated the potential for these iconic birds to engage and enthuse new audiences about the science of bird migration).

Shortly after being fitted with a tag, students at Dulwich International School in Beijing put forward, and voted on, names during an assembly.  The story of “Flappy McFlapperson” had begun.

Students at Dulwich International School vote for their favourite Cuckoo names

Flappy was about to begin an incredible journey, not only in terms of her migration from Beijing to Africa, via her breeding grounds in the Onon Balj Basin National Park in northern Mongolia, but also in terms of the number of people she would reach in China and around the world, most of whom probably wouldn’t, ordinarily, take an interest in migratory birds.

Her following was modest to begin with as she spent a relatively uneventful summer in Mongolia, close to the Russian border.  However, through regular social media in China and overseas, and articles in more traditional print and online media, she began to attract more and more followers as people marvelled at her incredible autumn migration that took her from northern Mongolia, across China and, via Yunnan Province, into South Asia, spending time in Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.  When she set off across the Arabian Sea, she provoked an outpouring of awe and admiration that a Cuckoo from Beijing could make such a journey to Africa.

Of course, Flappy and her kind have been making this journey for millennia, so it was routine for her.  But for humans, discovering for the first time to where these birds migrate and the route they took to get there, the reaction was like a child unwrapping a wonderful new gift – faces lit up, voices rose excitedly and her followers, many of whom had never before taken notice of nature, began talking about the wonders of migratory birds.

Flappy continued through the Horn of Africa, ultimately settling in Mozambique for the northern winter before returning via a similar route the following spring.

Since being fitted with her tag, in a nice symmetry, she has crossed 61 international borders involving 16 countries: China, Mongolia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia and DRC (Congo).  That list is better than most gap-year students’ backpacking adventures and her journey was made without the assistance of powered transport, or the necessity of a passport or visas.

Flappy was an ambassador.  She linked the Great Wall with the Taj Mahal, Jaipur with Mogadishu and Cuihu Urban Wetland with the Arabian Sea.  As one loyal follower on Twitter remarked, her most recent position – and it seems final resting place – around 100km north of Mandalay and c30km east of the Irrawaddy River recalls Rudyard Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay”, the last words of which are:

“Oh the road to Mandalay,
⁠Where the flyin’-fishes play,
⁠An’ the dawn comes up like thunder out China ‘crost the Bay!”

Flappy linked China and Africa and was even touted as an ambassador for one of China’s most prominent foreign policy priorities – the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, revitalising the traditional trade links between China and that great continent.

Over time, Flappy’s following grew and grew, with media articles about the Beijing Cuckoo Project in the Beijing Evening News, Beijing Science and Technology Magazine, Xinhua (more than a million hits online), Times of India, Hindustan Times, Daily News and Analysis (DNA) India, African Times, The Diplomat, The World of Chinese, GBTimes (Russia), BBC Wildlife Magazine and many more, including of course the front page of The New York Times (brilliantly titled “Cynical avian freeloader wins some respect”).

As recently as last week, her following in China multiplied thousands-fold after prominent bloggers enthused about her journey online, prompting three more media articles, including the one below in Beijing’s most popular newspaper, the Beijing Youth Daily.

The Beijing Tourism Board published a note to welcome Flappy to Beijing and a partially-sighted artist created the wonderful picture below to celebrate Flappy’s migration.

The reach of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.

I know many scientists baulk at the thought of emotional attachments to their study subjects and, whilst I understand that perspective, I find it impossible not to feel a connection to this remarkable bird.  In fact, I actively encourage it.  If we are to stem the human-induced rate of species extinction and habitat loss, conservationists must get better at reaching beyond their own circles to enthuse more people about the wonders of the natural world.  Technology is opening up a new era of discovery and it’s an unprecedented opportunity to involve the public in science and thus engage a new generation of people about the natural world.  In my view, a good scientist is one who views public engagement as an essential part of his or her work.

Flappy has certainly more than played her part, connecting millions of people to migratory birds and if just one of those people is, or goes on to be, in a position of power and makes a decision that takes into account migratory birds and their habitats, it will be an incredible legacy for a remarkable bird.

With thanks to Chris Buckley, I end this celebration of Flappy’s life with some words from a poem, “The Death of The Bird” by A.D. Hope.  The full text can be found here but the poem begins:

“For every bird there is this last migration…”

and ends:

“And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,

And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,

And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice, 

Receives the tiny burden of her death.”


RIP Flappy.


This map shows Flappy’s movements since being fitted with a satellite tag in May 2016. Her 2018 spring migration is in bold pink and the black dot depicts the location of the final transmission from her tag.


Title image: Flappy McFlapperson, a female Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) fitted with a satellite tag at Cuihu Urban Wetland, Beijing, on 24 May 2016.  Died 14 or 15 May 2018 in Myanmar, c100km north of Mandalay.  Age unknown.  RIP.




永别, Flappy !

 Terry Townshend 生地行 今天

“For every bird there is this last migration…”

“…And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,

And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,

And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,

Receives the tiny burden of her death.”

-“The Death of The Bird” 

by A.D. Hope


题图:Flappy McFlapperson,雌性大杜鹃(Cuculus canorus),2016年5月24日在北京翠湖湿地公园佩戴卫星标识。死于2018年5月14或15日,缅甸曼德勒以北100公里处。年龄未知。安息。


该信号是5月14日以来一系列信号的最后一个,它显示了两条重要的信息:第一,温度波动增加,第二,电池电量快速消耗。第一个信息很重要;一只健康的鸟自身体温会抵消环境温度的日夜波动,也就是说仪器的温度会保持相对恒定。温度的显著波动是情况恶化的迹象。电池耗尽的信息本身并不一定是坏事,但结合温度数据后,它增加了问题存在的可能。虽然理论上讲,如果标识脱离身体,也可能出现以上情况,但考虑到标识固定得十分牢固,这种情况不太可能。很不幸,结论必然是Flappy McFlapperson在2018年5月14日至15日的某个夜晚中消失了



毫不夸张地说,Flappy McFlapperson,或者我们亲切的称它为“Flappy”,将牵动全球数十万人甚至数百万人的思念。

在北京杜鹃项目中,2016年5月24日,北京北部翠湖城市湿地,我们给第一只雌性杜鹃带上了卫星标识。该项目由北京野生动物救护中心(BWRRC)、英国鸟类基金会(BTO)和北京观鸟(Birding Beijing)合作开展,并得到英国鸟类慈善信托基金(British Birds Charitable Trust)、东方鸟类俱乐部(riental Bird Club)、伦敦动物学会(Zoological Society of London)和国际鸟盟(BirdLife International)的支持。该项目旨在将科学发现与公众参与结合起来。首先,我们希望了解东亚的杜鹃的越冬地点以其迁徙过程;第二,我们希望让公众了解北京鸟类惊人的迁徙过程(BTO已经开展了追踪英国杜鹃的项目,证实这些偶像般的鸟类可以吸引大众关注鸟类迁徙科学)。

在给这只雌性杜鹃装上标识后不久,北京德威国际学校的学生们提出要给它取个名字,经过投票表决,“Flappy McFlapperson”的故事开启了。



Flappy即将开始一段惊人的旅程,她要一路从北京飞到非洲,路过蒙古国北部Onon Balj盆地国家公园繁殖。她带着中国乃至全世界许多人的关注,其中多数人刚刚发掘对候鸟的兴趣。





Flappy是一位大使她将长城与泰姬陵、斋浦尔与摩加迪沙、翠湖湿地公园与阿拉伯海相连。正如Twitter上一位忠实的粉丝所说,她最近的位置——也许是它最终的位置——曼德勒(Mandalay)以北约100公里,伊洛瓦底江以东约30公里的地方,让人想起Rudyard Kipling的“通往曼德勒之路”(Road to Mandalay),最后一句是:





Flappy 将中国与非洲联系起来,甚至被称为“一带一路”政策的代表,振兴中国与非洲大陆之间的传统贸易联系。

随着时间的推移,Flappy 的关注度越来越高,《北京科技杂志》、《新华社》(超过一百万次在线点击)、《印度时报》、《印度斯坦时报》、《印度每日新闻和分析(DNA)》、《非洲时报》、《外交官》、《汉语世界》,《GBTimes》(俄罗斯),《BBC野生动物杂志》等争相对北京杜鹃项目进行报道,《纽约时报》还刊出头版,标题为《愤世的不速之客赢回一些尊重》。






感谢Chris Buckley,我引用A.D.霍普的诗《鸟逝》(The Death of The Bird)结束对Flappy的纪念。这首诗开头写到:


















21 thoughts on “Farewell Flappy”

  1. The email I have been dreading confirmation the something has happened to Flappy I am so upset and sad at the news. An amazing bird making a huge migration after all that distance so very upsetting that she didn’t make it back to her breeding grounds. She will be sadly missed by the millions of people who followed her progress

  2. Beautifully written. What an ambassador she has been. She, and Terry, have made an enormous impact on the consciousness of two continents and, indeed, the whole planet. Her influence in shaping attitudes towards the natural world will have been enormous. A tiny life with big consequences. A life well-lived in my book. Happy journeys, Flappy and thanks to Terry for bringing her story to the world.

  3. Thank you Terry for following up with the bird’s amazing flight and I hope she will still be found living and cheerful. We should all turn our love for this bird into being sensitive to all living creatures on land and sea.

  4. Well written Flappy is a legend she will be returning again for her incredible journey through her like. RIP

  5. Felt very sad to know about Flappy. I was constantly following her from her first journey. Flappy represented mystical and incredible power of nature. May her families continue to inspire human beings.

    1. Yes, the populations of many of our migratory birds are falling. Gaining a better understanding of their migrations and the places they need to rest and feed is vital if we are to have a chance to save them. Flappy certainly helped us understand, for the first time, the migration of cuckoos from East Asia, and the places they need along the way. That is critical information for conservation.

  6. A good effort with the tagged cuckoos. Regarding Short toed eagles I found a pale phase bird in Igidae, Busan, South Korea on the 20th May 2018, an important record for S. Korea.

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