Tale Feathers! The Cuckoo Bird

Tale Feathers! The Cuckoo Bird

Tale Feathers! The Cuckoo Bird. This post of Tale Feathers looks at some very interesting behavioural aspects of the Cuckoo Bird. We have examples and teachings from Nature in many different ways. The unexpected lifestyle of the Cuckoo birds shows us the ways Nature works and survives.

ManButur Suantara. Wildlife Photography Sawidji Studio Art and Photography.

See them in Nature. Hear them in Nature. Understand and respect them in Nature.

~ManButur Suantara

The Familiarity of Cuckoo Birds

The cuckoo is synonymous with the ‘Common Cuckoo’ which is native to Europe and whose voice is imitated by cuckoo clocks (and whose call, coo-coo, gave the name to the entire cuckoo family). It is well known as a brood parasite: females lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds, and their hapless ‘hosts’ raise only young cuckoos.

The Call of the Cuckoo

When they make their sound it can last for hours. Day or night. The cuckoos’ call varies a little between subspecies but they have a very distinct calling song.

Myth of Fact?

The Cuckoo bird in Indonesia is known as the Kedasih or Wiwik. Here, the Kedasih has many different folk tales and associations with its name. In Java and Bali, the call of the cuckoo has a very foreboding meaning. The sound of the Kedasih is associated with some myths. In many areas, the sound of this bird is associated with death. They believe that if the call of the Kedasih continues throughout the night, it is a portent of death within that area.

Perhaps there is a positive side to this ominous myth. As a result of this belief, the Kedasih (Cuckoo bird) is one of the few birds that does not suffer from heavy poaching. As bird hobbyists and collectors are not inclined to keep the bird or harm it in nature. So the Cuckoo bird is well protected by his myth.

Most people have heard of a cuckoo bird but do not know what they look like. They may know the bird’s name but don’t know exactly how it looks. These are shy birds, who tend to avoid open spaces. This is one reason that more people recognise their call rather than their appearance.

~ManButur Suantara

Here in Bali there are several types of cuckoo birds. Some of the more known ones are Plaintive Cuckoo, Black Cuckoo (wiwik Hitam), Sunda Cuckoo (wiwik sunda) and the Banded Bay Cuckoo (wiwik lurik). All of the Cuckoos here are known as Kedasih.

The mythos associated with the Cuckoo bird is already intriguing. However, in addition they have even more interesting facts about them.

Apart from the myth that is associated with these cuckoo birds, there is something rather remarkable about their behaviour. The word ‘Kedasih’ in Java carries meanings about love and family. This association is poignant when we learn more about the Cuckoo birds’ behaviour about raising their young.

Characteristics of the Cuckoo Bird

They are birds that do not ever build a nest. They are solitary and seldom socialise. With the exception of the breeding season. Since they dont ever build nests, they will lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Even more peculiar, they actually get rid of the original eggs that belong in that nest. So their young, will be ras=ised by other birds, who have been tricked into raising the cuckoos egg.

ManButur Suantara Tale Feathers Photograph Plaintive Cuckoo Kedasih Kelabu
Plaintive Cuckoo Kedasih Kelabu

When the cuckoo young hatch from the egg, if there are other eggs in the nest, even the baby cuckoo will get rid of those eggs. If there are other young chicks amongst them in the nest, little baby cuckoo will often kill them.

So this is a bird that is definitely antisocial, master manipulators and display a certain cruelty by our human perception. Perhaps it is this inclination of ruthless survival intinct that causes the certain death of their competition, maybe this is where the myth began. That where the cuckoo is.. there will be death. Perhaps this is why the call of the cuckoo is a portender of death. Well, at least, we know there are other little baby birds that will die.

It has been observed though, that, the mother cuckoo, despite leaving her egg for another bird to raise, does stay close by and will monitor and keep watch on her young.

Plaintive Cuckoo (Kedasih Kelabu)

ManButur Suantara Tale Feathers Photograph

The Plaintive Cuckoo in latin is Cacomantis merulinus. Part of the genus Cacomantis Cuculidae.

This is the sound of the Plaintive Cuckoo

In these images, you can see the juvenile plaintive kedasih (cuckoo) being fed by its foster mother. You can see how much smaller the fostering species is. When I took these photos, I saw there is one adult female plaintive cuckoo watching from a distance. With a quite a bit of focus. It seems there is recognition between this adult cuckoo and the juvenile.

ManButur Suantara

In Bali, the Plaintive Cuckoo is the most common. We also find native to Bali the Sunda Cuckoo, Black Cuckoo and Banded Bay Cuckoo. All of these are in the category of least concern.

The Sunda Cuckoo (Uncuing Sunda)

This is a typical Cuculus cuckoo. Most adults are grey with black stripes on a white breast and belly, but some females are “hepatic”; they appear rufous overall with extensive barring. Virtually identical to the Himalayan and Oriental cuckoos, which migrate through and winter in Sunda’s range. To tell the difference you need to look for Sunda’s more contrasting darker grey upperparts, wider bars on the underparts, and buffier unmarked vent.

The juvenile is dark greyish black above with white edging to the feathers. Like most cuckoos, more often heard than seen. Ref: eBird

The Sunda Cuckoo is most notably recognised by the markings of its feathers. The images here are of a Juvenile Sunda Cuckoo. When adult, they have a flatter grey back with the stripes on the underbelly area.

Sawidji Tale feathers sunda cuckoo

Image: Sunda Cuckoo Adult. Wikipedia

The call of the sunda cuckoo is also different from the most commonly recognised call of the Plaintive Cuckoo. But they carry the same portent.

Square Tailed Drongo Cuckoo (Kedasih Hitam)

The square-tailed drongo-cuckoo (Surniculus lugubris) is a species of cuckoo (family cuculidae) that resembles a black drongo. In the past the species S. lugubris included the subspecies dicruroides which is now treated as a separate species the fork-tailed drongo-cuckoo. Wikipedia

The first time I saw the Wiwik Hitam (Square Tailed Drongo Cuckoo) I thought this was a ‘Sri Hunting’ or Black Drongo bird. Then they flew further away. I followed them to gain a shooting distance. I took the images thinking that this was a Black Drongo. It wasnt until they flew away and I check the images that realised that it was a different species. Which proves that this bird is appropriately named. As it does resemble the Black Drongo very much.

ManButur Suantara
ManButur Suantara Tale Feathers Photograph

The Square Tailed Drongo has the same behavioural traits and diet as the other cuckoos we find in Bali. However they do tend to live in denser forested areas. Makes sense, the darker the plumage, they would be better camouflaged in denser forests.

Bay Banded Cuckoo (Kedasih Lurik)

Cacomantis sonneratii. Slender brown cuckoo with extensive fine barring and pale face and underparts. Found in lowland and foothill forests, where, like many cuckoos, it can often be inconspicuous in dense foliage. Listen for its two distinct songs, a high rising “smoke-yer-pep-per!” and a series of rising whistles. (Image Ref: eBird)

This is the cuckoo I have not yet photographer. I have seen in the wild. But they were hidden by foliage and was not clear enough to photograph. You can hear their call, and they stay still when singing. This is one cuckoo that I still hope to find in the wild to photograph.

ManButur Suantara

Contemplations on the Cuckoos Life Approach

Seeing things from two perspectives is a good way to learn something from the Cuckoo bird. You can say on the one hand, that they are cruel. Certainly from the viewpoint of the dead baby birds, they are cruel. You may say that as mothers, they are irresponsible and ruthless.

From another perspective, these birds are smart. From the way they are camouflaged and the system they have adopted to make sure their young is reared and flourish, with the least amount of effort. So the Cuckoo birds are smart survivors.

Are these the equivalent of sociopathic behaviour in the bird world? In English-speaking countries, we have an expression, when someone is a little off balance or shows signs of ‘crazy’ behaviour. The expression is said ‘They’re cuckoo’. Perhaps this is where it originated. When we see abnormal behaviours, that are against socially acceptable practice, the majority will see this in a negative light.

The mother provides for their young through a different method. She just doesn’t do the work herself. Or she is not capable. We know the Cuckoo birds do not build nests. Perhaps they don’t know how to. Without a nest, they can not raise their young. They can not lay their eggs. Perhaps this is showing signs of a mother’s devotion. She will go to great lengths to make sure her child is born and raised well. The Cuckoo mother knows the egg needs a nest to survive. It is not abandoned, it is placed somewhere where it will be sure to survive.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Satwa Alam Bali and My Trip Indonesia. The beautiful photography captured by ManButur Suantara is supported by equipment from Sriwijaya Camera Denpasar. Also to Mike Frankenstein for his hospitality, and kindness, and for letting ManButur climb on his roof to take photos of birds.

Wildlife Photography and Bird Enthusiasts aid in Conservation.

Photographers and their communities often pool together information on central platforms. Sharing information brings to light many discoveries about different species. Identifiers, behaviours, locations. This data is useful for researchers to understand changes in the environment. Specifically for Shorebirds, you may wish to look into http://www.whrsn.org. This stands for the Western Hemisphere Shorebirds Reservation Network. A great source of accurate information.

In Indonesia we share a lot of information with other countries through platforms such as ‘Burung Laut Indonesia‘ (Seabird Indonesia) and E Bird. These platforms and programs make it possible for even hobbyists to register and record sightings etc. The ability to place information in a central location makes this powerful globally.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. the sound files of the bird calls are interesting

what did you find most interesting?