Skeleton Coast by Amy SchoemanFebruary 3, 2017
On horse patrol to SossusvleiFebruary 7, 2017
Text and photographs Pompie Burger
| Main photo: Levaillant’s Cuckoo lays a rather similar-looking, blue egg to match those of the Arrow-marked Babblers
One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest…
M ost of Namibia’s cuckoos fly south at the beginning of the rainy season, and north towards the end of summer, but in the end all of them fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Their strange behaviour of using a host as stepparent for hatching and raising their chicks is probably their main claim to fame. I must be honest; if I were to do the cuckoo thing, I would rather have the host doing the parenting while my kids were in Grade 9, but maybe the teenage thing is not that big in cuckoos.
When I showed our friend Ilse the poor little Jacobins (Clamator jacobinus) – which are about twice the size of bulbuls – being fed by a rather exhausted-looking African Red-eyed Bulbul, she was furious, to say the least, especially because they were using her and Francois’s farm and tree to do this ‘inhuman’ thing. Fortunately, she cooled down when she saw a Didericks Cuckoo devouring one of the caterpillar worms, which in turn munch away the tree’s leaves at a devastating rate. I must add that I explained to her that they are doing this job 24/7, so they really do not have time to do the parenting thing.
The best-known cuckoo in Namibia is the Diderick Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius), also known as the rain bird. In Namibia you will soon realise that anything remotely associated with rain is called a rain something or other. However, these birds are more often heard than seen, because their constant dee-dee-deederik call is better known than their beautiful, green feathers. Apparently they love the caterpillars associated with the African sausage tree, Kigelia africana, so I had to confess to Helga that I had not planted the Kigelia in our garden for its beauty. Unfortunately the caterpillars still prefer Ilse and Francois’s farm to my Kigelia.
The call of the Black Cuckoo (Cuculus clamosus) – you’ll never see one so don’t bother looking – sounds to me like ‘pompiee…pompiee…pompiee’, but maybe I’m just being vain. Be that as it may, I have answered this call on various occasions, but to no avail. These birds are either deaf or just plain spiteful. They have certainly never returned my call, so they will unfortunately not feature in this article in person.
Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas) is probably one of those who flew east, because I am yet to see my first in Namibia. The only problem is that I will then have to travel to Gobabis to see one, and I really don’t know if I can.
My first encounter with one of these birds was a Red-chested Cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) in Mpumalanga where I grew up. The persistent monotonous call of these birds – ‘piet-my-vrou, piet-my-vrou’ (which happens to be their Afrikaans name) – is as common and invisible as brandy and coke at Loftus Versfeld. According to Roberts Birds of Southern Africa they do occur in Namibia, but I suspect that was possibly a few hundred years ago. The drink is, indeed, still very much around.
Another visitor from up north (all the cuckoos in Namibia are intra-Africa migrants) is the African Cuckoo (Cuculus gularis). Its look-alike bird, the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is the only exception to this, being a non-breeding palearctic migrant. For the bird-watching fundi it is apparently quite easy to distinguish between the two. The African Cuckoo has more yellow at the base of the bill than the Common one! For mere mortals like me there is a much easier method: if it calls, it is an African, if not, it is a Common. Easy, very easy, because they are quiet in our region. Their call, incidentally, is similar to that of the African Hoopoe.
To get back to the cuckoos’ charming habit of evading parenthood, and, more specifically, their choice of a host. Jacobin Cuckoos (Clamator jacobinus) parasitise mainly the African Red-eyed Bulbul – their eggs are obviously much larger, which the host generally accepts. Levaillant’s Cuckoo (Clamator levaillantii) lays a rather similar-looking, blue egg to match those of the Arrow-marked Babblers. The Great Spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) prefers to use crows’ nests, where the chicks have to compete with more formidably sized stepbrothers and -sisters. The Black Cuckoo uses the Crimson-breasted Shrike and Tropical Boubou nests, which have well-matching eggs. And the African Cuckoo parasitises the Forked-tailed Drongo, but as a result of the poor matching, more than 70% of the eggs are rejected by the host. In addition to abusing the host’s hospitality, some even have the audacity to throw the host’s eggs out of the nest!
Most people, even the non-birding population, know what a cuckoo is, although some people’s knowledge doesn’t extend beyond a cuckoo clock. The important aspect is that calling is part and parcel of the cuckoo’s make-up; little wonder then that most of their names are related to their calls. The species name for the European Cuckoo is canorus, meaning musical, and of the Black Cuckoo clamosus, meaning noisy. The Diderick’s name is self-explanatory. To my mind the best and most original of all the names is Klaas’s Cuckoo, named by author and naturalist François Levaillant after his servant.
There are more than 100 species of cuckoos in the world, of which only 50% are nest parasites. Namibia’s nine species are all nest parasites! The cuckoos are divided into the genuses of Chrysococcyx (two species), meaning golden and for that matter colourful; Cuculus (four species), meaning cuckoo; and lastly Clamator (three species), meaning noisy, referring to the loud chattering cries of this genus. The cuckoo’s diet consists mainly of caterpillars, hairy and plain, and other insects when available. Their distribution, therefore, is related largely to the availability of food.
For centuries the word ‘cuckold’ has referred to a man who unwittingly raises a child that is not his own. This makes one wonder who is the cuckold here; the cuckoo or the host?
This article was first published in the Flamingo July 2011 issue.