A greedy cuckoo has found not one but two surrogate parents to raise him this breeding season. And most remarkable of all, they were birds of different species, black-headed honeyeaters and scarlet robins.
Last summer I was shown a cuckoo chick being fed by honeyeaters at the Waverley Floral Park in Howrah, and this season I eagerly waited for my informant, Vern Hansson, to contact me with more sightings.
Vern is a skilled finder of nests, and cuckoos, and I was grateful for the cuckoo tip-off because in more than 50 years of birding I had rarely seen the sad sight of cuckoo surrogacy close-up.
Vern had led me to a pair of black-headed honeyeaters frantically trying to keep up with the large appetite of a young pallid cuckoo, more than twice their size. This summer he had an even more remarkable sighting. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me in his email. He had been watching a pallid cuckoo with honeyeater “parents” like last year, but then the cuckoo had decided to take over the nest of a different species nesting nearby, the scarlet robin.
What’s more, the female scarlet robin was still sitting on the nest and the cuckoo merely deposited its large frame on top of her, stealing the food that was brought to her by a loyal and industrious partner.
The female finally managed to free herself from under the cuckoo – it didn’t appear the male could see her there, so large was the body of the cuckoo covering her –and then went off in search of food for the cuckoo.
What happened to the eggs and young in the nest below the female I can only speculate, but the cuckoo could well have returned to the nest after he had freed the female and eaten the eggs, or young if they had hatched.
As soon as I received Vern’s email I made plans to visit the nest and Vern was waiting for me at the gates of the reserve to lead me to it. By now the cuckoo had taken up station on a garden fence belonging to a property bordering the reserve.
First I saw both the scarlet robins hunting insects in the leaf litter below the nest site and flying to the cuckoo to feed it. And then the black-headed honeyeaters arrived to continue the food supply.
The pallid cuckoo – at 31 centimetres in length – is the largest of four cuckoo species to visit Tasmania from the mainland in summer. Probably the most common, at least in the Waterworks Valley where I live, is a slightly smaller species, the fan-tailed cuckoo, and there are two smaller species still, the shining and horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos.
Although I never feel comfortable with the anti-social behaviour of our visiting cuckoos, I must accept that it is only the hand of nature doing its work, however outrageous and cruel it appears to human moral sensibilities.
All the same I felt particularly sad at the frantic efforts of two sets of surrogate parents to keep up with the cuckoo’s mighty appetite, but my mood brightened on the way out of the reserve.
Vern, the expert nest finder, pointed out a nesting dusky woodswallow, with young to eventually send on their way without the cynical intervention of the cuckoos.