IT’S not a pretty sight for the emotional or faint-hearted, an outsized pallid cuckoo chick being fed by a pair of tiny black-headed honeyeaters.
When I saw the spectacle close-up for the first time, it was worst than I had imagined. The cuckoo actually lunged at one of the honeyeaters after it had received a big juicy insect, and the quick-retreating “parent” had obviously learned to be wary of the cuckoo’s ferocious beak.
In a half a century of bird-watching I had never seen this remarkable feat in detail. The actual feeding process can be so quick, often in a sheltered location, that it goes unnoticed. Certainly by me. I managed to catch a glimpse of flame robins feeding a fan-tailed cuckoo chick on Mt Wellington last summer, but before I could study this behaviour up close and personal on one of my daily walks the birds and their “offspring” were frightened off my a marauding brown falcon.
This year I was excited to receive an email from a keen amateur bird photographer, Vern Hansson [correct], to report he had found a pair of honeyeaters feeding a cuckoo in the Waverley Floral Reserve on the Eastern Shore. What’s more, Vern sent me pictures be had taken of the feeding process.
I made the mistake of not asking Vern the exact location, thinking I could find the cuckoo and honeyeaters myself. He said they were a short walk from an entrance gate to the reserve, but I got the wrong gate and spent a fruitless morning walking in burning sunshine in a vain hunt for the young cuckoo.
Many of my bird-watching days are like this, “one that got away’’ excursions as I call them, but I contented myself with the reward of seeing yellow-rumped thornbills, birds I do not see on my own, western side of the Derwent.
I was worried I had missed my opportunity because the cuckoo was clearly fully grown and it was only a matter of days, or hours, before it would start to find food for itself.
That evening, however, I returned and this time Vern said he would join me, and show me the precise location where the birds had been seen in previous days.
He led me through a patch of dry woodland rich in birds. Dusky woodswallows swooped overhead and satin flycatchers called from the eucalypt canopy. And there was the sight of the juvenile pallid cuckoo, sitting on a bare branch looking about it eagerly.
We waited for a few minutes, all the while growing anxious that the pallid cuckoo had already learned that it did not need the attentive parents, and had sent them on their way.
And then it happened in a flash. A black-headed honeyeater arrived and pushed a bug into the gaping, yellow beak of the cuckoo. The cuckoo, gulping down the food, lunged at the honeyeater, catching it for a moment by the wing before it could struggle free.
Despite these apparent dangers, the honeyeaters – measuring a mere 14cm compared with the cuckoo’s 33cm – remained attentive and dutiful, and over the next half hour or so Verna and I watched them bring a vast amount of insects, in about 20 sorties.
On one occasion, one the honeyeaters even visited a spider’s web on a tea-tree shrub to steal food for the pallid cuckoo from this.
On a balmy, summer’s evening I had finally seen one of the most fascinating, but all the same saddest sights in nature.
The pallid is the biggest of the four species of cuckoo that visit Tasmania in the summer and I’ve never been a fan of any of them because of their anti-social, parasitic nature. But they are only doing what evolution has programmed them to do – and we can’t blame them for that.