The Channel Billed Cuckoo is October's Bird of the Month.
Channel Billed Cuckoo
There are 12 species of cuckoos in Australia with the unusual Channel Billed Cuckoo being the largest in both Australia and in the world. They are big, heavy birds with a wingspan of up to one meter and a tail that is long and distinctive.
In flight their silhouette against the sky forms a 'cross', which leads to their other name of Crucifix Bird. They are a beautiful pale grey colour with barred underparts and black tips to their wings and tail and have eyes that are surrounded by a distinctive ring of red skin. Their most distinctive feature is their large, curved bill, similar to the tropical hornbills. Early observers in Australia like Governor Phillip misidentified them as belonging to that family. Their loud and raucous call definitely makes them known in the area. In the parklands, they are often mobbed by smaller birds and a gang of shrieking Noisy Miners who accompany them.
Channel Billed Cuckoos are a migratory visitor to Sydney, arriving in spring from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Their arrival was a calendar marker for Aboriginal people throughout their range, marking the return of the wet and hot weather. They are distributed across the top end and down the eastern seaboard, preferring forests and woodlands along the coast. Previously they were not often seen in Sydney, however over the last decades they have become a permanent summer visitor and their range has extended even further south to the NSW coast as far as Bega. In the tropics they are a year-round resident, but it is not known if they breed there or if that population consists of juvenile or non-breeding individuals.
Channel Billed Cuckoos are very opportunistic feeders, and whilst the larger part of their diet is fruit, they will also take insects, nestlings and eggs. They love figs, and it is theorised that the large numbers of urban plantings of species such as Morton Bay figs might encourage them into urban areas such as those seen in Centennial Parklands. They hunt on the wing, in a behaviour called ‘hawking’ when they fly out from a perch to snatch large flying insects, but also hop and scramble through the treetops taking arboreal insects and searching out birds’ nests.
The breeding habits of the birds are fascinating, but also a little sinister. They are parasitic breeders, finding the nests of large species like magpies, currawongs, and ravens. They stalk the nests, darting in when the parents are absent and laying one or more large eggs in the clutch. As she lays, the big legs and feet of the female cuckoo often damage the eggs that are present, and once it hatches the huge cuckoo baby quickly outcompetes the other young birds and they are killed. The hapless adopted parents then run themselves ragged feeding a demanding baby that is not their own. Once mature, the juvenile channel billed cuckoo flies north, following others of its species back to the tropics
In the Park:
Channel Billed Cuckoos can be seen and heard around the parklands throughout spring and summer and if you keep your ears open, you can often hear the incessant begging squarks of young birds as they nag for food. They are a spectacular and very “un-Sydney” bird to see, looking much more like a creature of the tropical rainforests of Asia.