The Grey Wabler and the Shining Cuckoo

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
A bit of nature and the interaction between two bird species.

Submitted: July 22, 2016

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Submitted: July 22, 2016

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Every morning I go for a walk, and depending on the season, I see the sun rising in the East. As the seasons slowly change, I enjoy watching the change from night to day, dawn, and during those times I listen to the dawn chorus.There are many birds, some are indigenous and some of them are introduced (mainly) from Britain.

Most people don’t experience this because they have to go to work, or school, or don’t have time, some prefer to lie in bed until they really  have to get up, others simply are not interested in nature! So I am fortunate because the dawn chorus is a beautiful thing for those able to hear it.

With a fertile, childish imagination I used to tell my mother that there was a bird talking to me, and of course she smiled back knowingly. If you listen to the Thrush in the morning as it sits atop a tree, and use your imagination, it is singing, ‘Good morning to you, good morning to you!’ And other times, if you listen carefully, it sings. ‘Pretty boy, pretty boy!’ You thought that only parrots say that, didn’t you?

Today, I heard the Grey Warbler, or the Maori name: Riroriro. It was singing it’s plaintive warbling song. The tune lasts for about twenty seconds, and then it repeats it again and again. Plaintive the warble may be, but it is pleasant to the ear.

The Grey Warbler is a shy little bird, so even though you hear them, you don’t often see them. They live in leafy shrubs, cleverly fanning the branches with their wings to catch insects as they fly off. They are small birds. An adult bird would fit easily in your cupped hands and of course they are grey in colour so are not especially pretty or flamboyant. Nature’s camouflage, makes them much more difficult to see in the bushes than most other birds.

With the smartness of Nature, Grey Warblers make the season’s earliest nest, so their chicks can fly off early, fledge, and then they use the same nest (or sometimes they build another) for another round because something unusual happens.

Sometime in October there is a new birdcall! Tuwee, tuwee, tuwee, tuwee, twuuu! The last note is longer. (And sometimes, later in the season, they just use the twuuu.) The sound of this call, say the wise in the colonies, means that there are not likely to be any more severe frosts, so it is therefore safe to plant/sow the season’s potato and tomato crops. Another random little fact is that they, like eels, greenbone (fish) and whitebait are only present during the months with ‘r’ in them – just adding some southern hemisphere experience.

This new call announces the arrival of the Shining Cuckoo, all dressed up in its flash, shiny green feathers and pretty bar marks across its white-creamy chest! The New Zealand winters are too cold for this bird, so it flies all the way to the Solomon Islands, up beyond New Guinea, and then returns back to New Zealand as the weather warms up during late September, early October. Clever, these birds are too!

The Shining Cuckoo does not make its own nest! Instead it finds the second Grey Warbler’s nest and lays an egg inside! The patient Grey Warbler sits on the single egg among its own and when the Shining Cuckoo chick hatches, the first thing it does is to push any Grey Warbler chicks or unhatched eggs out of the nest! The poor Grey Warblers then have to work hard to find enough food for the Shining Cuckoo chick, which grows to three times the size of their foster parents!

Shining Cuckoos main diet is caterpillars, which may be why they need to fly away for the winter, because there are very few caterpillars to be found during the North Otago winter. They too are difficult to see because they sit high up in trees while calling out to their mates.

One day last year, there were about thirty of them together in the poplar trees above me as I worked. It is very unusual for these birds to congregate into flocks! And noisy!

Although they mainly use Grey Warbler nests, sometimes the Shining Cuckoo will utilize Fantail, Silvereye and even Finch nests. Any organism that survives at the expense of another organism is called a parasite and I suppose Shining Cuckoos sure enough are parasites, making them technically in the same league as headlice, malaria or intestinal worms – but they are pretty little parasites.

Each year I wait in anticipation for the first call of the Shining Cuckoo!


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