September 26, 2017

Cuckoo reluctant to leave

The far-carrying, trilling call of a fan-tailed cuckoo rang out across the Waterworks Valley. It’s a constant refrain in the summer months but this was at the start of winter.

Was it a fan-tail choosing to make an ultra-late departure for its wintering grounds on the mainland or one choosing to take its chances and brave the Tasmanian winter.

Certainly a cold snap earlier in the month of May had given the cuckoo every incentive to leave.

It’s not the first time I have heard a fan-tailed cuckoo in winter, and indeed the fan-tails were the first of the migrants to arrive in my home valley ahead of spring last year,  beating another early arrival, the striated pardalote, by a few days in the last week of winter.

The fan-tail is one of four species of cuckoo (there are 17 Australian family members) to visit Tasmania, the others being the pallid and shining and Horsefield’s bronze-cuckoos.

The fan-tail appears to be the most common, certainly in my valley, and I must confess I feel a sense of relief when its stops singing along with the others at the end of the breeding season at the end of February.

I’m not a fan of cuckoos, especially the fan-tail, which because of its intermediate size is able to exploit a whole range of nests, from the dome, forest-floor constructions of the fairy-wrens to the open, tiny cup nests of the pink robins hidden in dogwood.

Every time I hear their calls and songs I know the cuckoos’ anti-social work is at play. They out-source parenting, of course, laying a single egg in the nests of other birds.

The cuckoo chick grows rapidly, using its large yellow-gaped beak to demand an uneven delivery of food normally shared through a brood. Then the cuckoo chick manoeuvres its body to eject its “siblings” from the nest, or merely suffocates them below its larger body.

As if the thought of that is not bad enough, the most disheartening sight to my eyes is seeing the harried parents feeding the outsized chick. Last summer I saw a pair of black-headed honeyeaters flying to and fro to a belligerent pallid cuckoo chick, the honeyeaters only about a third of the cuckoo’s size.

By coincidence, a day after hearing the calling cuckoo I read an account in a British newspaper expressing joy at the arrival of the first cuckoo of spring.

The cruel European winter cannot really be considered to be over until the onomatopoeic call of the European cuckoo – the only species to visit Britain – is heard, and for more than a hundred years there has been a tradition of readers of The Times of London announcing its arrival on the newspaper’s letters  page.

The cuckoo, however, has carried a more sombre message in recent years. Cuckoos are increasingly failing to arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa, the clearing of native woodland and drought thought to be the reason.

So when the cuckoo calls, Britons can be forgiven for putting its anti-social behaviour at the back of their minds.

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