Goodbye to Rainbirds and Stormbirds: Cuckoos Fly North for Winter

A change in season means different sounds in the garden

Although the Coral Sea cyclone season ends officially on 30 April, I am going to make the call right now. Goodbye, swirly things. Hello, dry season.

I live in the Wet Tropics region of Far North Queensland where ‘dry’ means ‘not as soggy as it is for the rest of the year’. Things are never quite as cut and…er... Some dry seasons see rain into the middle of the year. In one particularly damp June, I was standing outside the post office, taking off my muddy shoes before going inside, when a local dairy farmer said to me, ‘After the drought of 1966, I swore I’d never complain about the rain again, but…’

My reason for making this not very brave pronouncement about the weather has little to do with the rain and a lot to do with (relative) the peace and quiet in the garden. Pacific (Eastern) Koels and Channel-billed Cuckoos have packed their bags and headed north to New Guinea for winter.

Male and female Pacific Koel (as Flinders Cuckoo, Eudynamys flindersii) from Gould’s Birds of Australia. Public Domain.

Over summer, a pair of koels took up residence in the garden. I heard them more often than I saw them, but when I did see them what a treat it was — the male in glossy black plumage, the female in fancier feathers, cream and brown, with spots and stripes on wings and tail, and fine dark lines across her front and over her fluffy pantaloons. The pair spent most of their time lurking, eating, and avoiding the judgement of Hornbill Friarbirds, whose nests they parasitise. (Hear their full range of calls.)

Linnaeus named the species as Cuculus orientalis in 1766, based on the appearance of the adult male. There was some confusion about the identity of Australian koels. Ornithologist John Latham described the Blue-headed Cuckow (sic)(Cuculus cyanocephalus) in 1801. He later (1822) referred to the Flinders Cuckow, which he considered to be a different species. He did not give that one a scientific name, but it was subsequently called Eudynamys flindersii by Vigors and Horsfield. From the descriptions, it seems likely that both the Blue-headed and Flinders Cuckoos were either female birds or young male birds moulting into adult plumage.

…crown of the head dusky black; over the eye a broad streak of buff-colour; behind the eye a streak of black, reaching to the wing; under parts of the body pale buff, marked with narrow, irregular bands, or lines of black; at the beginning of the back a patch of black, somewhat mixed; wings mixed with blackish and buff-colour; tail long, cuneiform, brown, marked with curved buff, or tawny crescents on each side of the shafts; legs horn-colour. [Flinders Cuckoo]

The Blue-headed Cuckoo is now considered one of two subspecies of Pacific Koel (Eudynamys orientalis cyanocephalus) present in Australia. The other subspecies is E. orientalis subcyanocephalus. The two are distinguished by subtle differences in the colour patterns of the females. Sometimes bird taxonomy is confusing.

Channel-billed Cuckoo from Gould’s Birds of Australia. Public Domain.

The Channel-billed Cuckoos have also left us for warmer climes. Late last year, they announced their arrival with calls that can be most politely described as raucous. It is the largest parasitic bird species in the world, laying its eggs in the nests of Pied Currawongs, ravens and Torresian crows, Australian Magpies, and butcherbirds. In summer, you often see Channel-billed Cuckoos being chased across the sky by currawongs. Also by Willie Wagtails. Not because they’re victims of the cuckoos, but because Willie Wagtails are bolshie little beggars and are always spoiling for a fight.

On seeing one of these giant birds with its stonking great beak, John White, surgeon on the First Fleet, called it an ‘anomalous hornbill’.

The bird is so very singular in its several characteristics, that it can scarcely be said to which of the present known genera to refer it. In the bill it seems most allied to a hornbill, but the legs are those of a toucan, and the tongue is more like that of a crow than any other.

The two striking features — the huge bill and the zygodactylous feet, in which two toes point forwards and two backwards — led Latham to describe it among the toucans and hornbills.

Rostrum magnum, convexum, cultratum; apice adunco.

[Beak large, convex, shaped like a knife; tip curved.]

Both koels and channel-billed cuckoo are called ‘storm birds’ or ‘rainbirds’, their calls or appearance believed to presage a downpour. A letter to the Emu in 1904, remarked:

The Channelbill…has been unusually plentiful in the district [Scone, NSW] during the spring, and has been reliable as ever in the matter of weather changes — in fact, the shearers look upon the bird as a real prophet of evil.

They fly in at the beginning of the wet season and leave at the end, so they are bound to get some forecasts correct.

The quiet in the garden is temporary. Hornbill Friarbirds and Lewin’s Honeyeaters are resident, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos drop in most afternoons. At this time of year, we swap cloudy skies for clear ones, and night-calling cuckoos for day-calling cockatoos.

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland.

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