November 20, 2018

Cuckoo finds a reluctant friend

Holding the tiny cuckoo in my hand, its warm body nestled in my giant palm, its eyes blinking in bewilderment, I regretted all the nasty things I had said about cuckoos over the years.

I had called them the sociopaths of the animal kingdom, loners preying on industrious doting parents, disrupting family life, callously leaving others to bring up their young.

The cuckoo modus operandi is well known, of course.  Instead of rearing young themselves, a female merely deposits her eggs in the nest of carefully selected host species.

The cuckoo egg hatches and the cuckoo chick – larger and growing more rapidly than its “siblings” – merely ousts them from the nest, or even suffocates them under its body.

For me the magic of spring, of rejuvenation and hope after the dormant, often cruel Tasmanian winter, is tinged with a little melancholy when, amid the optimistic musical notes of other songbirds, I hear the repetitive, far-carrying call of the four cuckoos which visit Tasmania in the breeding season. These are the pallid, fan-tailed, shining bronze and Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo.

I ask what misery and disruption they will wreak and it is confirmed a few months later when I see robins and honeyeaters struggling to feed rapacious, greedy “off-spring” which in the case of the pallid cuckoo can be three times their size.

The bird I had in my hand was a shining bronze-cuckoo, the smallest of the bunch along with the Horsfield’s.

Although I see and hear shining bronze-cuckoos all the time I didn’t realise how small and fragile they were. And here was this little bird – about the size of a grey fantail – seeking safety and security in my hand, the bird injured I think from hitting a wire fence in the Waterworks Reserve while under attack from brown thornbills who had twigged the cuckoo’s anti-social intent.

The cuckoo, dazed and struggling to flap its wings, looked to me for protection, clearly aware the thornbills were giving me a wide berth.

The cuckoo had been lying on its back in the grass and when I placed him on a strand of wire forming the fence he seemed to perk up. I gave the thornbills one last shoo to send them on their way and set off for home.

Although I might have rescued the cuckoo at this point my loyalties remained firmly with the thornbills. I couldn’t stop thinking, however, of this beautiful little bird in emerald-green livery with bronze head, narrow stripes across its grey breast, and the fate that would befall it if other, bigger birds joined in the attack.

I returned, chased off the thornbills again, and reached out my hand. It eagerly grabbed a finger, and I could feel its claws pressing into my flesh, tighter as the thornbills hovered. The cuckoo was now placed in a tightly-foliaged grevillea.

Next day when I returned the cuckoo was gone. Off no doubt to resume its seemingly mean-spirited business, but how could I feel antipathy towards a tiny bird struggling for day-to-day survival, merely carrying out the business that Mother Nature demanded of it.


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