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Channel Bill Cuckoos Brisbane

This morning on the last day of September at 6:00am we were delighted to hear raucous calls announcing the arrival of Channel Bill Cuckoos (Scythrops novaehollandiae) in Brisbane for the summer season. The call is a very loud Kor ork ork ork and they often do this whilst flying at night (sound file link at bottom of file). This annual migration is from New Guinea and northern Queensland and their departure from Brisbane occurs around the end of February the following year.

Channel Bill cuckoos are a large grey birds around 60-67 cm in length with long wings and tail and are the largest parasitic cuckoos in the world. Their common name comes from their broad, heavy bill. As their name suggests they are parasitic, laying their eggs in the nests of Crows, Magpies and Currawongs. They can occasionally be seen flying with a murder of crows in hot pursuit.

We have been fortunate to observe their courtship twice. The female sits about in a tree making relatively quiet plaintive calls until the male presents her with a large stick insect (around 30 cm) and mounts her as she eats the stick insect. On one occasion the plaintive calls lasted most of one day. The mating performance is brief but spectacular – a flurry of wings, beaks and flailing stick insect legs. After the mating the plaintive calls cease – back to the very loud Kork ork ork ork. A friend has observed egg laying in which effective use is made of the raucous call. The male sits near the host nest and produces an enormous racket and the female slips in to lay an egg while the host is distracted.

In the last two years crows in our area separately raised two cuckoo chicks. The chicks could hear each other calling during the day and gradually came closer and closer as the summer wore on until they sat together in the same tree much to the distress of the foster parent crows. Shortly thereafter (early March) they departed for the year. It would be interesting to note what food the Crows use to raise the cuckoo chicks. As adults cuckoos eat native fruits and insects. In comparison crows usually eat road kill, carrion and food scraps. Crows do eat insects and fresh fruit and if you have a mulberry tree you will have evidence of their appetite for fruit in the nasty purple stains over things like cars, tables, washing etc.

We enjoy the arrival of these large, ungainly birds and their raucous calls, especially late at night. The crows don’t seem to share this sentiment and become greatly agitated whenever they hear “Kork ork ork ork!”

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