It was December 2011 when I first heard it. ‘Aaaanh, aaaanh, aaaanh,’ it went; on and on with jack-hammer intensity. Didn’t let up for a moment. The parents were around but, try as they might, their noisy offspring would not be silenced.
‘Hmm,’ I wondered to myself, ‘what on earth can that youngster be? I haven’t heard one of those before.’
I scanned the trees for a view of this bothersome baby, continually hounding its parents for ‘Food, food, food!’ And certainly not a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ involved either. All we heard was the cry: ‘Aaaanh, aaaanh,’ sometimes interspersed with an ‘Aaaanh, aa-glahglahglahglah,’ when the food was deposited into its unquenchable craw causing some choking, just enough to quiet it for a few seconds.
Then I saw it; it was huge. Much bigger than the crows which flew desperately here and there in a never-ending struggle to feed this monster they’d raised. It wasn’t a crow, either. It was an attractive mottled grey, a powerful looking bird, with a deep groove in the sides of its not inconsiderable bill; a juvenile channel billed cuckoo in fact.
I have since learned that channel billed cuckoos are the largest of the parasitic birds and that they lay their eggs in those of the currawong, the magpie and all the corvoid family nests they can find. There is one good side to this monster cuckoo and that is that it doesn’t turf the natural children of the parents; it simply grows faster, demands more and gets what it wants, out-pacing its smaller and weaker step-siblings and monopolising the food supplies until the others starve to death. A truly delightful baby. As adults they eat fruit (native figs are a favourite food), insects, small birds and eggs; as young they eat whatever their parents bring them.
The channel billed cuckoo is a migratory bird and comes here (SE Queensland) and along the coasts of Australia as far south as Sydney and Perth, from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It breeds in forested areas in tropical and subtropical climates; some have even been found to have mistakenly made their way to New Zealand. As adults they have a sleek grey plumage with a barred tail. They are large, attractive, awe-inducing birds.
After living in our vicinity for a couple of months (the parents perhaps dead from exhaustion) the baby disappeared and I forgot all about it. This year, however, another demanding channel billed cuckoo fledged chick was about. It, too, pestered its step-parents into constantly stuffing its gullet with goodies. Now they are gone. The crows are silent, maybe wondering how they managed to have such a big baby, and the juvenile has flown. Has s/he left these shores yet? Will we see her/him again at the start of next summer? Will it be the parents of the first juvenile who lay their eggs in the familiar nest of those crows, or do the babies return to where they remember growing up to lay their own eggs? Perhaps the crows’ nest just looks the most inviting in the neighbourhood. I wonder if any naturalist has tagged these birds to see what the answers are.
NB: cuckoo, unsurprisingly, comes from the same word root as cuckold. Bringing up someone else’s bastard child can never be easy.