Sing, cuckoo!

The channel-billed cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae) is a regular feature of life in summer around here. Each year the birds fly down from Indonesia and New Guinea to our eastern states between August and October, and leave generally in February or March.

These cuckoos are big birds – the first time I saw one I thought it was a toucan, then remembered we don’t have toucans in Oz. They also make big noise – and the shrieks can continue throughout the night in the breeding season.

Channel-billed cuckoo adult; photo by Paul Balfe, Wikimedia Commons

Channel-billed cuckoo pair; photo by Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons

They are the largest parasitic cuckoo in the world. Birdlife Australia puts their breeding habits succinctly:

The channel-billed cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of the Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, the Pied Currawong, Strepera graculina and members of the crow family (Corvidae). Unlike many other cuckoos, the young birds do not evict the host’s young or eggs from the nest, but simply grow faster and demand all the food, thus starving the others. Often the adult female will damage the existing eggs in the nest when she lays her own and she may even lay more than one egg in a single nest.

Not only the magpie, currawong and crow are parasitised, as shown by Andrea McIntosh’s photos. Andrea is in my photography group and gets a lot of birds at her place. The unfortunate in this case is a peewee or mudlark (Grallina cyanoleuca; in South Australia we call them ‘Murray magpies’), a bird about half the size of a magpie.

Their main food is native figs and, as you can see, sometimes insects.

You can hear the raucus call here. The theory is that the call distracts the ‘victims’ who pop away from the nest to investigate, and the female cuckoo pops in to lay the egg. Why this happens all night, I have no idea. Between them and koels (also night-callers, which sound like they are going to explode at the top of their call), it’s very noisy here in the country!

There’s an English medieval round, ‘Sumer is icumen in‘ (click on the link to hear it), celebrating the arrival of the cuckoo and with it the summer:

Summer is a comin’ In loudly sing, cuckoo!

Groweth seed and bloweth mead and springeth wood anew,

Sing, cuckoo! Ewe now bleateth after lamb, for calf and (now) loweth cow;

Bullock rouseth, buck he browseth merry sing cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well then (thou) singeth cuckoo,

Oh ne’er be silent now.

 I bet the English don’t have such loud cuckoos, and, while I don’t subscribe to that last line, I celebrate the arrival of our cuckoos just the same.

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8 Responses to Sing, cuckoo!

  1. Prue Gargano says:

    Very informative article, Joy. And what spectacular photos!

  2. Roselene says:

    They are quite a sight, and sound.
    We don’t have any nesting channel billed cuckoos near here – the noisy miners have chased them off. But the complaints from people in the area about these, and koels, are nearly as bad as the noises from the birds.

  3. janebeau says:

    Clever, but unpleasant, like all parasitic beasties!

  4. Kathy Pearce says:

    Hi Joy.

    I love that these travellers can remind us what time of the year we are in, by their calls.

    Great pictures of the Magpie, outsized by the Channel-billed Cuckoo young.

    Kath

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