Saturday, June 26, 2010

Weird sunbather

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.


  1. This is a fantastic article again, Lynda! I’m so thankful for all these special things I learned from you within this shortest time, some days I only log in to see if you have a new entry.
    The Burchell’s Coucal is amazing and so beautiful, his calls are stunning aswell. Their chicks are simply da bomb, so darn cute!!!
    I immediately checked the KMP birdlist, sadly the Burchell’s Coucal wasn’t listed there as spotted, other than 5 other cuckoo species. There is also reported you spotted a Hamerkop in a small waterpool to the west of the farmhouse, amazing!!!
    Thank you again for this great lesson!

  2. Lil_Earthwoman,
    I feel like I have my own personal praise-singer! Thank you.
    Coucals, worldwide, favour thick, tangled vegetation, so deserts are strictly out of bounds.

  3. They do have the most wonderful call Lynda. I always had some in my garden and we would have a big fight over my strawberries - every time I thought that I would leave one till the next day, I would then find that it had a big bite out of it or was completely gone. LOL!

  4. This reminds me of the local Coucal and our dog (Ralf - Doberman) when he was still living in Jo'burg. In general Ralf gets along fine with all birds, even the Hadedas can walk right past him. But he and the local Coucal had a "special" relationship. The bird would sit low in a bush/tree and if he saw Ralf he would start "mocking" him. This, naturally, managed to irritate Ralf a lot and he would stand at the base of the tree/bush and growl at the bird. The reverse was also true, whenever he saw the Coucal he would always go and harass it. The two could frequently be found having an "argument" somewhere in the yard. I guess the yard simply wasn't big enough for the both of them (and their attitudes).

  5. Joan,
    The things we suffer for wildlife!

    Ralf sounds like a real character. You can't blame him though, coucals do have a very 'in-your-face' manner.

  6. This is definitely one of my favourite birds. We had them in our garden when we still lived in suburbia. They were very shy but were a delight to watch when we had the opportunity. I have caught a glimpse of one in the bush, on the Albany Road cliff. He is very shy though, probably from avoiding the local vagrants.

  7. I just stumbled across your delightful blog. Last Feb. I visited SA for the first time, and heard the wonderful calls of the Burchell's Coucal for a week before I finally saw them drying out after a rainstorm. They have great personality, as do Mousebirds and many other African birds.

  8. John,
    Nice to hear from you. I trust you had a good time in SA. It's a beautiful place. I'm very fond of mousebirds myself; they're seriously cute critters!


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