On Tuesday 30th January Brendan Kinsella noticed some movement in the trees near the Herdsman Lake Wildlife Centre and upon investigation he spotted a recently fledged Pallid Cuckoo juvenile in close proximity to a Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys nest.
You will notice Pallid Cuckoos and their distinctive call (Nyungars call it Djoodaran) around October, indicating their return back to the southern part of WA. They have escaped our colder months by heading north (another Grey Nomad). Although when humans call someone ‘a cuckoo’ we think they are crazy, this bird is far from that! Its zoological name Cacomantis pallidus which means ‘a pale prophet of evil’ and it gives us a clue to what is about to happen. After mating the male and female cuckoo work in tandem, first the male distracts the attention of another nesting bird (such as a honeyeater, whistler, warbler or flycatcher) by coming very close to the nest. The wagtail leaves the nest to chase the cuckoo away, but whilst this is happening the female sneaks in and deposits one of her eggs into the unsuspecting wagtail’s nest (sometimes even flicking one or more of the chicks or unhatched eggs out to make more room). The wagtail returns to her nest and continues incubating, unaware she has secretly become a foster parent as she incubates her brood, but now also with the cuckoo’s egg. Cuckoos have quite a short incubation (12 days, which is 2 days quicker than wagtails) and when hatched, the young cuckoos are well known for pushing the other eggs or chicks out of the nest, so the foster parents direct all their attention to feeding it alone. Soon the cuckoo (30cm) towers over its more diminutive foster parents (17cm), who to me don’t seem that bright as they never seem to catch on to the dastardly plan they have unwittingly become involved in.
I have often thought maybe cuckoos must also bilingual because they have to speak wagtail as a juvenile, but learn to speak cuckoo as an adult, so they can find a partner. Maybe humans need to re-think their definition of the word ‘cuckoo’, for it seems like a pretty clever plan to me!
Our thanks go to Brendan Kinsella and Roger Hales for permission to use