You’re suddenly awake. It’s very very early in the morning. There’s an loud, insistent two-note call right outside your bedroom window. It goes on and on and on, each time inching up in pitch, getting more and more desperate until it’s pretty much a hysterical squeak. Just when you think the bird’s going to start outright screaming or explode, abruptly it stops. You settle down in bed. And then it starts again.
Or it’s the middle of the night. Somewhere in the darkness, there seems to be a huge, angry and deeply confused seagull, belligerently squawking in disgruntlement and disgust: “Where the hell’s the beach??! And where are my chips!!!?”
I heard my first koel, bang on time, the day after the vernal equinox; a raucous channel billed cuckoo interrupted one of my classes a few days before. They’ve flown in from the north in time for the breeding season. Sydney: it’s officially spring.
Despite their loud voices I have only ever eyeballed koels a couple of times. On both occasions it was a whining juvenile that got my attention. Down the bottom of the garden a year or two, I watched a great galumphing teenager begging for takeaway from a motherly if diminutive wattlebird. We’re still working on installing LBB (little brown bird) habitat around here. In the meantime wattlebirds rule the roost, along with magpies, kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets, cockies, brush turkeys – the usual self-confident generalists and anthropophiles (is that even a word?). Which suits the koels fine, since red wattlebirds seem to make great parents.
Channel billed cuckoos prefer currawongs and occasionally magpies as babysitters, and since a mob of maggies has been hanging out at our place over the winter, I wonder if we might get an in-situ “fig hawks” or two as well. My dad spotted a mega-cuckoo at the top of the drive last weekend, so it just might happen. Surprisingly, considering its deafening cries and outlandish hornbird-esque appearance, no-one knows much about what the channel billed cuckoos get up to in their spare time. So, go, backyard birdwatchers, go! Do that citizen science thing!
For all the mystery, it seems these guys, like the brown cuckoo doves, cooing outside the kitchen window in a more decorous and paradigmatically cuckooish way, are some of the winners of the anthropocene. They like us and our tasty fruit-bearing trees. And they favour the parenting style of the other birds that enjoy the buffet. Currawongs have come down from the mountains in the last forty years to snack on Sydney’s privet and lantana, and the visiting cuckoos are pretty happy about it.
Reflecting on how much these birds seem to enjoy our company, I’m tempted by a “humans-as-brood-parasites” line of thinking. Begging for food from our animal compatriots, all the while chucking their babies out of the nest. Terminating the blood lines of the things that came before us in a flash and replacing them with more and more of our own offspring. Bigger, noisier and more devious than the critters that feed us and house us.
But let’s not go there. It’s a nasty thought, and whatever we might say about humans, cuckoos just aren’t that bad.