September 2011

Cuckoos aren’t crazy – they’re just lazy parents!

Can you please identify this bird? There have been three of them around our home the past month and we have not seen them before.

Answer

Adult Channel-billed Cuckoo front view.
Photo: Dennis Merchant
Adult Channel-billed Cuckoo back view
Photo: QM
Pied Currawong eggs left and right; Channel-billed Cuckoo egg centre
Photo: J. Sheridan QM
Fledgling chick of Channel-billed Cuckoo being fed by Torresian Crows in Brisbane garden
Photo: N. Starick QM

The bird in your photo is a Channel-billed Cuckoo, Scythrops novaehollandiae.

These birds are the largest parasitic cuckoos in the world and come from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in the spring to breed in Australia.

Channel-billed Cuckoos are a ‘brood parasite’, which means they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds (their hosts) which include Pied Currawongs, Torresian Crows and Australian Magpies.

There are 12 species of cuckoo in Australia and with one exception (the Pheasant Coucal, Centropus phasianinus) they are all brood parasites, parasitising over 100 other species of birds.

Brood parasitism in cuckoos involves various strategies depending on the species.

  • Female cuckoo may remove or damage host eggs when laying her egg in the nest
  • Cuckoo eggs and/or chicks resemble those of the host
  • The cuckoo chick hatches earlier and pushes out the other eggs or develops faster than its siblings

Most remarkable of all, once fledged, cuckoo chicks exhibit all the attributes of their species including calls, behaviour and migration.

Outside Australia brood parasites are known from other bird families besides Cuculidae (Cuckoos). Other families include: Icteridae (5 species of Parasitic Cowbirds); Anatidae (Black-headed Ducks); Indicatoridae (17 species of African Honeyguides); and Estrildidae (20 species of African Parasitic Finches).

 

References:

Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds. Les Christides and Walter E. Boles. CSIRO.2008

Cuckoos, Cowbirds and other Cheats. N. B. Davies. T
& AD Poyser, London. 2000

The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight, Harper Collins. 2007

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