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The riddle of the cuckoo - Sunday Observer-K.G.H Munidasa


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Author Topic: The riddle of the cuckoo - Sunday Observer-K.G.H Munidasa  (Read 395 times)
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« on: June 24, 2010, 09:56:21 am »

A nature lover in my neighbourhood, who has a keen eye for birds, has witnessed a sight that no other bird-watcher, for that matter any ornithologist has ever seen. He has observed a Pied Crested-Cuckoo (a true cuckoo) feeding a young of its fosterer. The Ceylon Common Babbler.

On a previous week during a ramble in the tree-studded scrub on the outskirts of the village, some movement in a tree drew his attention. When he walked up to investigate he found two birds sitting side-by-side on a branch there, ten-feet from the ground. One was a Pied-Crested Cuckoo and the other an immature Common Babbler.

The babbler with its gape wide open was demanding food from the cuckoo, which promptly stretched out its neck and placed some morsel in the young one’s mouth. This was instantaneous and short-lived, for on seeing the intruder the cuckoo fled into the jungle, followed by the babbler.

After relating the story to me, the nature lover posed the inevitable question - could such a thing ever happen? With all my personal knowledge of the breeding biology of this resident cuckoo and what I subsequently gleaned from published accounts on the subject of “Cuckoo Problem” that I could lay my hands on, I am still unable to find a satisfactory solution to the riddle.

Being fed
Once in the Gal Oya valley, years ago, I found a young of this cuckoo being fed by a party of the Ceylon Common Babbler, in a srubland beside the public road. There were five babblers in the party, whilst two of them attended on the baby cuckoo the rest foraged in the carpet of dead leaves, beneath a hedgerow. It was the young bird’s hunger note that prompted me to look around, but I never expected to find a cuckoo. Its cry was strongly reminiscent of a young babbler.

Demanding food from the foster parents it imitated a young babbler extremely well, but in all outward appearance it hardly resembled one, apart from its size and colouration. It was sooty-black above and buff-white below, except the chin and breast, which were greyish. The beak was ****-yellow as in a babbler. More than anything else the white wing-patches gave away its correct identity.

Throughout its range, mainly in the Low-Country Dry Zone, the Pied-Crested Cuckoo is known to victimise the Ceylon Common Babbler or “Seven Sisters” in whose nest it lays its eggs. The newly hatched cuckoos are cared for by the babblers until such time they are able to fend for themselves. All true cuckoos in their breeding habits never look into the needs of the young, since they are looked after all along by the selected foster parents.

Yet, in the present instance couldn’t it have been possible that the cuckoo found its fosterer’s baby while the parents were away foraging for food?

Or, on the other hand, one might like to ask, could cuckoos have been solicitous towards its own young after the foster parents had deserted it?

Whatever it may be, the second theory is not up to the facts. Because, there seems a vast difference between the two species involved and further, my informant was positive what he saw was a Common Babbler, a common garden bird in any area.

The young cuckoo’s stratagem for survival is a wonderful exhibition of ingenuity and resorucefulness in nature. When it is first hatched from an egg the young cuckoo is harmless-looking little lump of flesh. But, nonetheless it is gifted with an amazing physical prowess and matured instinct for an innocent chick.

Ejecting procedure
On the second or the third day, although blind, it begins to take stock of the situation inside the nest. If there are other eggs or nestlings there it knows by instinct there would be future rivalry for food. Therefore, it proceeds to oust the other occupants of the nest, forthwith.

A British ornithologist who once watched a young of the English cuckoo ejecting a young Sedge-Warbler, twice its own size, from the nest has recorded thus, “The cuckoo showed the most amazing powers of strength. It worked down in the nest until its companion was on its (Chckoo’s) back, then gripping the sides of the nest with its feet it slowly and surely raised its burden.

When it appeared to have reached the extent of its stretching powers it opened the small flesh arms (unfledged - wings) and began to work these up and down.

It also jerked its body upwards with violent movements with the result that the young warbler was flung ignominiously over the side of the nest.”

Usually the young cuckoo grows up fast since it monopolises the attention of the foster parents. Once it is able to fly they follow it about attending to the further needs of the young cuckoo. Here not only the foster parents, but also other birds in the neighbourhood who are with their own broods sympathise with the young cuckoo and offer the food they would be carrying for their own young.

Even otherwise, if they ever come across a baby cuckoo crying all alone in a branch they would go out of the way to bring mouthfuls of food to appease its voracious appetite. There is a record of a young cuckoo brought up by a pair of Hedge-Sparrows having been fed in turn by five different species of birds.
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