No, not a typo in a Christmas carol, but the common koel, Eudynamys scolopacea. These cuckoos arrive in northern and eastern Australia from Indonesia and New Guinea to breed in spring, and I heard the first one last night. And I have heard it on and off all day. Our male looks like this one, feeding on the fruit of a palm. Ours likes the fruit of the mulberry tree.
The female is spectacular looking – see my photo in a previous post. But I admit I give a groan when I first hear the male, as I know I’m in for a few months of blood-pressure-heightening sqwarking. The call sounds fairly innocuous on this sound-bite, but the male actually repeats his call with rising tone, up and up, until it sounds like he’s about to explode. Day and night – aaargh, explode already!
The call attracts other species that the koel parasitises, so that they leave their nest to attack him, and the female sneaks in and lays a single egg there. The hatchling throws out the host’s eggs and young, like some but not all other cuckoos, when it is a day or two old. The foster parents feed the cuckoo youngster as their own.
Another cuckoo soon to arrive is the channel-bill (Scythrops novaehollandiae). When I first saw one of these flying around and shrieking harshly, I thought it was a toucan – the bill is quite large.
According to “Cuckoos, Nightbirds & Kingfishers of Australia” (Strahan, editor), it is the largest of the world’s parasitic birds, and parasitises crows, magpies and currawongs.
Both the koel and the channel-bill eat mostly fruit and insects.
A third cuckoo seen staggering across our roads lately and heard calling in the forest is the pheasant coucal. It has a hesitant gait, and it’s a wonder no more are killed on the roads. It seems to have no road sense, stands on the side of the road waiting for you to drive nearer, then determinedly puts its head down and walks in front of you as fast as its little legs will carry it – not very. If pressed (for instance, by me chasing it for a photo), it will fly into a tree and hide behind the foliage, but that seems a huge effort. I am reminded of archaeopteryx – the pheasant coucal seems strangely primitive.
According to the above book, it is unique among Australian cuckoos in that it is not arboreal, but hangs out in dense grass. It eats a range of insect and animal life (rodents, nestling birds, reptiles, frogs and such).
As the British medieval round says: “Summer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!” – “Summer has arrived, loudly sing cuckoo”. But substitute “spring” for “summer” in our case.