A Not So Common Cuckoo | CAI

A Not So Common Cuckoo

Nov 4, 2020

I almost always keep these reports to birds on the Cape and Islands. But in this otherwise slow news week, a certain bird from a neighboring state is just way too good to ignore. One of the world’s most interesting birds has landed at a place called Snake Den Farm in Johnston Rhode Island – it’s the not-so-common-around-here Common Cuckoo, just the third ever seen in the lower 48 states. This may seem far afield for the Cape and Islands Bird report, but note that from Falmouth, this farm is closer than Provincetown. And most Cape birders I know have already been to see this cuckoo, while the rest are on their way.

How unexpected is this bird? The only other reports I could find for this species over the last two weeks were in Southern India or East Africa. Their breeding range spans Europe and Asia, but they winter in the southern half of Africa. What makes the prosaically named Common Cuckoo one of the world’s most interesting birds? First, it’s their mind-bogglingly long migrations, perhaps the longest of any land bird. Russian and Dutch biologists apparently tracked a Common Cuckoo from breeding grounds in Eastern Siberia, not far from Alaska, to wintering grounds in Namibia – a cool 9,000 miles away. You need to look at a map to fully appreciate the absurdity of this two-continent migration, which probably includes flying over the Indian Ocean.

You might know that these cuckoos are brood parasites, like our Brown-headed Cowbird. This means they outsource the raising of their young to other birds – female Common Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of birds like Reed Warblers or pipits. Different females specialize on different host species, laying eggs that mimic theirs. I recommend Googling up some images of their chicks – the sight of the tiny, duped warblers feeding these hawk-sized Baby Hueys is almost too much. Research has shown they are not just hawk sized, but hawk shaped and hawk-plumaged, and for a reason – they evolved to physically mimic Sparrowhawks, a common bird predator, to scare the parent birds off, giving them some alone time with the nest.

Like our local cuckoos, Common Cuckoos eat a lot of big, ugly caterpillars most birds won’t touch, including the furry and spiky ones with irritating hairs. Birders visiting this Rhode Island bird have gotten fantastic photos of the bird wrestling and eating various caterpillars – see a video of one dispatching a Wooly Bear

Then there’s the clocks – yes, this is that cuckoo. This funny looking bird you couldn’t pick out of a lineup is the source of one of the world’s most iconic sounds. Without that sound, how else would we know when a cartoon character got hit in the head, or indicate that someone “ain’t quite right”? On a related note, if there’s anyone listening who’s feeling gifty, I’ve always wanted one of those elaborate German cuckoo clocks, like with little men sawing wood and that sort of thing.

This Rhode Island cuckoo was seen as recently as yesterday, so if you’re lucky, there might still be time to see the not so-Common Cuckoo, without having to purchase an antique clock or a box of Cocoa Puffs. And if we’re all really, really lucky, this bird will be the cuckoo-est thing in this week’s news cycle…