Paradise lost, parasite found

My neighbourhood isn’t exactly a naturalist’s paradise. I live about 100 metres away from the busy Southern Expressway in Adelaide’s southern suburbs.

There isn’t much by way of native vegetation around the streets here, and the local birdlife is decidedly urban – a lot of Noisy Miners, New Holland Honeyeaters, feral pigeons and the like. There is a sparrow clinging to my lounge room window frame, staring in at me, as I sit here writing.

But this week was exciting because I saw a new bird for the first time, and I didn’t even have to leave my own garden.

[It was only the second most unusual thing to appear in my garden this week, by the way. The first was an unknown person who sprinted barefoot in their pyjamas through my front garden as I drank my coffee one morning.]

A visitor calls

As I tended my veg garden the other day, I heard an unfamiliar bird call coming from a tall tree in the corner of the garden. It seemed to be coming from a flock of sparrows that were perched there, but this wasn’t a sparrow-y chirrup.

It was a thin, slightly miserable-sounding, repeated, descending whine: siyew, siyew, siyew. I’d heard the same sound around the place for the last couple of days, but didn’t know who was making it.

Straining my eyes to see, I noticed that one of the ‘sparrows’ was a little larger than the others, and had a longer tail. Under the tail I could make out distinct black barring – which I immediately recognised as a feature of cuckoos!

Much excitement.

I have had quite a lot to do with cuckoo skeletons in my palaeontology research – during my PhD I described the world’s largest ever species of cuckoo – but this was the first time I’d ever seen a live one.

Who said that?

But, don’t cuckoos say ‘cuckoo’?

Some, yes. The Common Cuckoo from Eurasia and Africa does – the kind immortalised in Swiss clocks. Only one species that occurs in Australia, the Oriental Cuckoo, sounds like this, but this migratory species doesn’t generally call at the time of year it visits Australia.

Our other local cuckoos include species with loud whistling calls, raucous monkey-chattering calls, sweet whistling calls, chirruping calls that remind me of the Jetsonmobile, and a mellow sound like water glugging from a bottle.

My bird flew off, so I was left to try and work out what it was.

Based on the whining call and dull plumage, I though it might be a Black-eared Cuckoo, which are generally considered uncommon. Another possibility was a juvenile Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo – a common and widespread Australian species – that hadn’t yet developed the striped front of the adult.

I got my camera out in case it came back so I could capture a better look at it. I kept my ears open, and a few hours later, sure enough, there was the whining call again.

Amazingly, it cooperated fully with the camera, sitting fully exposed on an electricity wire just outside my garden for ages, allowing me to stand more or less directly underneath it.

Horsfield's Bronze Cuckoo
Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo (Photo: Elen Shute)

 

Once I uploaded the photos onto my computer, I could see I was mistaken about the lack of stripes. There they were, clear as day. Definitely a Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo. Widespread, common. But it still made my week.

One more mystery

I was surprised to see that the cuckoo wasn’t being bothered by other birds as it perched there, calling in the open. Many species of cuckoo, including Horsfield’s, are brood parasites: birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other species.

The foster parents are then left with the thankless task of raising voracious young cuckoo chicks, which often grow much larger than the host parents.

Understandably, cuckoos tend not to be very popular with other birds, and often get mobbed by host species who try to drive them away before they can drop off the kids.

I had to wonder who the Horsfield’s were targeting for babysitting duty around here. Today I think I may have got a clue.

This morning I again heard the cuckoo’s whining call, this time out the front of my house. I looked out of the window, and saw a cuckoo (maybe the same one, I don’t know?) sitting on an overhead wire. A feisty New Holland Honeyeater was flying at it, trying to chase it away.

When the Honeyeater landed in front of the cuckoo, the cuckoo instinctively lunged forward with its beak wide open. Was this a defensive move, or was it trying to beg a meal?

I can’t be sure, but later today I found that New Holland Honeyeaters are nesting in my back garden, so they are right to be wary.

A newly fledged chick was hopping around the branches near the nest, cheeping and fluttering its wings to remind its parents that it wants insects, and quickly! The baby was a New Holland, so the parents got away with it – this time.

But I’ll be keeping my eyes open for oversized babies in coming weeks…

New Holland baby
A New Holland Honeyeater fledgling (Photo: Elen Shute)

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