The world’s largest parasitic cuckoo has landed in Australia for its breeding season, and it is wreaking havoc for all kinds of Aussies, feathered and not.
You are more likely to have heard the Channel-billed cuckoo than you have seen one, with its persistent, grating squawks serving as an unwanted midnight alarm for many Aussies throughout spring.
But that is where the resemblance to the annoying wooden cuckoos of clock fame starts and stops.
For one, the channel-billed cuckoo is far larger. With a wingspan of up to one metre and weighing as much as a kilo in adulthood, it’s the largest cuckoo and parasitic cuckoo in the world.
Two, its squawk sounds like something from Jurassic Park, and its looks do nothing to stop the comparisons to monsters, demons, or Satan himself: with its large, curved, toucan-like bill and bright red eyes.
Neither does its habit of stealing other birds’ nests to lay eggs, sometimes by eating the resident eggs, then leaving its own young to be raised by the ‘foster’ bird that it has overtaken the nest of.
Altogether, it makes the channel-billed cuckoo, to some, “an a**hole”.
And, yet, the bird experts we spoke to were quick to defend this foreign interloper, which hails from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, visiting for breeding in the Spring before leaving again in February and March.
Great Eastern Ranges Initiative CEO Gary Howling said the channel-billed cuckoo was far more “extraordinary” than we give them credit for.
He said it was “not a problematic bird” and actually assisted keeping other “problem species” with even more “predatory” nest-stealing tendencies, like the magpie or currawong, “under control”.
“Channel-bills are actually frugivorous species, they take up residence in habitat where there’s a high abundance of native figs and other fruiting trees,” Mr Howling said.
“They do take larger insects and they do occasionally take the eggs. But they preference fruits.”
Dr John Martin, senior ecologist at Ecosure Consultancy, echoed the veteran ecologist’s assertion, saying the Channel-bill does nothing different to what any other parasitic species does in the name of survival.
“It’s a hugely successful strategy that allows them to lay their eggs in another species’ nest, they don’t have to do any parental work, and they go and lay another egg,” Dr Martin said.
When a female Channel-bill is ready to lay her eggs, she’ll find the nest of a similar larger bird – like a magpie, crow, or currawong – and lay hers among the others. Occasionally, she will first eat the other birds’ already-laid eggs to clear space.
When the cuckoo chicks hatch they are looked after by the host birds that originally build the nest and, scientists have observed, they grow so fast and demand so much food from the ‘foster’ birds that the other chicks starve.
But Dr Martin says there is evidence the baby channel-billed cuckoos “actively push those (younger) birds out”.
“They have been shown to take over the nest not just in a passive way but in an active way,” he said.
“It’s a unique example of adaptation, and if we appreciate them and acknowledge that we can see they’re big, beautiful birds – as well as noisy and intriguing.”
What adds to the intrigue is that the bird’s loud arrival from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia at the start of spring seems to welcome the first storms of the wet season up north. That is why it is also sometimes nicknamed the ‘Storm Bird’.
“They’re certainly noticeable when they get here and noticeable when they leave, but they’re not a bird that people can be scared of,” Mr Howling said.
“They’ve got a fascinating story with their migration so noticeable, and they’re one species we should be proud of in that it provides a tangible lateral connection with our neighbours (PNG and Indonesia).”
Dr Martin agreed, saying their noisy arrival – and courting – however inconvenient in the wee hours of the morning – provided a “new sound of summer”.
“These birds weren’t common in Sydney a decade ago, and it’s one of a few seasonal indicators that we can pick up on,” he said, like jacarandas or wattles blooming.
“I think they’re giving us a change to appreciate nature and be aware that even when we’re in the city, we’re in nature. There are plants and animals, some are doing great, some are not doing great.”
He said they provided a great gateway for people to get involved in citizen science, to document when and where they spot the channel-billed cuckoo and other animals or plants to send to apps, blogs, and museums.
“It’s something to think about when we’re getting the bus to work or picking up children: take this moment and watch the birds. Take a walk in the park to focus on everything around you,” Dr Martin added.
Originally published as If you live in the red zone of Australia, you need to read this