The joys and tribulations of a field biologist (and hermit) studying
mongooses in the South African bush.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
One of the challenges of winter is getting out of bed.
But if it's cold here, at least it's sunny, with glorious blue skies every day.
As I waddle out to the car every morning, swathed in jumpers, scarves and gloves, I gaze longingly at the pools of golden sunshine. Ah... just to sit and soak up the warmth... Then, moments later, I drive past someone doing exactly that.
About 300m from my house, my drive mounts the embankment of a manmade dam, and runs along the dam wall amid a jungle of tall reeds and grasses.
It's here that I meet the sun-worshipper.
Pressed against the tangle of reeds, wings extended and tail lowered, he epitomises sun-soaking contentment. Slowly he opens his eyes as I approach and then, as my car makes its second faltering attempt to crest the slope, he gives an irritated shrug, shuffling his raised feathers back into place. But he doesn't move away, mind you, even though we both know I must drive within a couple of metres. Only if I stop beside him does he scramble away into the undergrowth.
He's a Burchell's coucal (Centropus burchelli) and like all his kind he's got attitude. Coucals are large striking birds with bright chestnut wings, a black hood and creamy front. Their flight is slow and clumsy (and they've a tendency to crash land) but on the ground they run with speed and agility.
A Burchell's coucal basking in the sun. Unlike most birds, coucals have two toes that face forward and two that point backward (zygodactylism) to help them clamber in the shrubbery. They also sport a huge, scimitar-like claw on one of their rear toes. Photo by Arno Meintjes. Coucals used to be members of the cuckoo family, but they've now been banished to a family of their own (Centropodidae), probably because they subversively raise their own chicks. Actually, it's only the male coucal who's made this radical break from tradition; his mate continues to fritter away her time, mating and egg-laying. The diligent male (distrustful of foster families?) weaves the domed grass nest, sits on the eggs and ferries assorted bugs to the chicks. The closely related black coucal (Centropus grilli) takes this domestic arrangement even further. Female black coucals team up with multiple males and each one raises a nestful of chicks just for her.
Burchell's coucals are fierce predators, doing in large insects, eggs, nestlings and any other unfortunate beast that crosses their path. They happily raid mist-nets, and sprint along ahead of grassfires snatching up fleeing refugees. Photo by Arno Meintjes.
Whether it's a consequence of maternal neglect, or the embarrassment of being reared by a biological parent, coucal chicks turn out VERY weird. They look like gremlins, with ink black skin and spiky white hair. Actually, the hairs are really simple, tubular feathers (called trichoptiles) which bear an unhealthy resemblance to the earliest feathers of the earliest birds. When the coucals' nest is threatened, the chicks give an excellent rendition of snake-like hissing, and if this fails to deflect the intruder, they high-tail out of the nest, squirting a foul-smelling jet of excrement as they go. Their legs develop much more rapidly than their wings, so even young nestlings are well equipped to scramble off into the undergrowth. Once the danger's passed, they all come clambering back into the nest to resume the pretence of normality.
This chick is actually an Australian pheasant coucal (Centropus phasianinus) and the photo was taken by Ian Sutton. Click here to see pictures of Burchell's coucal chicks (different but still mighty weird).
If Burchell's coucals have a strange family life (and who doesn't) at least they have beautiful calls. Colloquially known as rainbirds, pairs tend to duet when the humidity climbs. Their resonating calls have an other-worldly feel and are reminiscent of water gurgling from a bottle (I know that doesn't sound like it would be nice, but it is). Decide for yourself by listening to the call here (the second recording - a pair dueting - is best).
There are around 30 species of coucal loitering in the rank thickets of the world, with five species living in southern Africa. This Burchell's coucal was photographed by Arno Meintjes.
Having spent 16 years living in remote places in the African bush studying the social behaviour of mongooses, my own is non-existent. I survived 8 years in the desert, at the Kalahari Meerkat Research Project (i.e. Meerkat Manor), and am now doing research on dwarf mongooses in the lowveld of NE South Africa.
If you come across a mistake on this blog, please let me know. I really want to learn new things, and to get them right!
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