Cuckoo

We find our strangeness in nature.

Outside our house, a cuckoo sits in a gum tree, calling plaintively to his parents. His voice is uncannily like a whinging baby. He calls and calls for food.

His parents are two currawongs, who fly to their baby as often as they can. Their hurried manner makes me think that they are stressed. They do not sing, they do not settle. They feed their demanding child and fly away for more.

The cuckoo is no longer in a nest. He is large, probably twice the weight of each of his parents. My guess is that he is the bird-equivalent of a needy teenager, not a baby at all. The parents should tell him to buzz off and fend for himself. Instead they keep bringing him food. When he sees them, his whinging rises to a crescendo.

Feeding a cuckoo. Pen, pencil, felt-pen on paper. Craig Bingham 2021

Australian channel-billed cuckoos (or storm birds) are handsome to look upon, but their parasitic behaviour is atrocious.[1]

The genetic parents of the cuckoo in the gum tree are also in the neighbourhood. We hear them as they swoop from treetop to treetop, making loud and hectoring cries that are nothing like the cartoonish sound of a cuckoo clock. Frequently they are pursued by other birds, because birds know trouble when they see it. Cuckoos are distinctive in flight, with their powerful wings and long tails. People could mistake them for hawks, although they are actually predators of a more sinister kind.

Cuckoos do not raise their own offspring. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. It seems incredible, but this ruse apparently goes undetected. The unwitting foster parents guard the cuckoo egg with their own and then raise the baby up. I have read that channel-billed cuckoo babies do not push their foster-siblings from the nest — so they are not as vicious as some species of cuckoo — but they are usually much larger and more demanding than their adoptive brothers and sisters, who tend to starve as a result. If the cuckoo in the gum tree is typical, I imagine that they have horrible effects on family dynamics.

Like people, birds are family animals, and the implications of the cuckoo way of life are horrible to consider. When cuckoos hatch, they see their supposed parents, they open their mouths, they are fed, loved and cared for, and yet none of this stops them behaving like cuckoos when they grow up. All cuckoos must have an identity crisis, raised by birds unlike themselves, destined to realise that their parents are not their parents, and that their flock is not their flock. Are they intrinsically bird sociopaths, recognising from an early age their otherness, but content to exploit the hapless strangers entrusted with their care? Or do they live under a misapprehension of their circumstances, like adopted humans who assume they are biological descendents until some moment when the penny drops and they realise that mum and dad are not, genetically speaking, mum and dad?

The foster parents are destined to labour and to be disappointed. Surely they must suspect something? Either they do not or they are driven by a charitable spirit we are not used to ascribing to birds. Do currawongs who are stuck with a cuckoo’s egg say to each other, ‘It can’t be helped — someone has to look after him, and it will have to be us’? Despite their efforts, their fostering is in vain. Cuckoos grow up to be cuckoos and not oversized currawongs.

Although cuckoos do not raise babies, they do manifest the urge to mate and to take the necessary steps to extend their genetic line into the future (obviously, because all animals that do not take these steps rapidly disappear from the world). I had wondered how cuckoos ever learn that they are cuckoos, and then I discovered that cuckoo parents do watch their babies from afar. They return to claim their offspring once all the hard work of mouth-to-mouth feeding has been done. The cuckoo in the gum tree has been visited by his cuckoo-parents several times since I have started watching him. They try to call him away, all the time being mobbed by a flock of currawongs who seek to drive them off. So far, he has resisted — still too interested in food, perhaps, or is he just confused? Who are these strangers who claim to be mum and dad, telling him he is not the currawong he thinks he is? But I understand that he will soon answer the call, abandoning his currawong foster parents and migrating north to New Guinea or Indonesia for a tropical winter before finding a cuckoo mate and starting the parasitic process once again.

What kind of parent­–child relationship is this? When they meet, does the young cuckoo resent his careless parents, or is there the pleasure of discovering his true likeness? In what spirit does he cast aside his foster parents? Does he continue to love those that cared for him? Maybe that is why he will seek out foster parents for his own brood — looking to his own experience, it may seem the only way to guarantee them love.

Surely Richard Dawkins has had something to say about cuckoos? Their example is classic godless evolution at work. Avoiding the heavy duty of child parenting leaves adult cuckoos free to do other things, like eat, sleep and focus on their careers. For the cuckoo, carelessness is the road to breeding success. I suppose there are plenty of people who do this too, shucking off their children as infants, leaving the work of raising their offspring to others. We think of this as the monstrous behaviour of a delinquent parent, or as something that only monstrous circumstances would force upon a parent. But, among birds that uniformly care for their young, the cuckoo shows this monstrous adaptation and — horror of horrors — it works. The law of nature does not punish, the angels in heaven do not protest.

In birds we are advised to look for genetic programming to explain all behaviours, including odd behaviours that run counter to the usual evolutionary solution. In humans we are encouraged to do otherwise, looking for social influences or personal ‘willed’ decisions to explain behaviour. We don’t have to do either of these things. It takes only a little imagination to see the historical and particular influences upon an individual bird’s behaviour, or to do the opposite and see all humans as programmed beings with only the illusion of choice. Perhaps the reality, for all living things, is something muddled and in between.

It may be because of my age and history that I feel for the currawongs looking after the cuckoo in the gum tree. They are so much like many human parents, working so hard for their child, destined for loss when the child takes flight. The currawongs are furthering cuckoo life, not currawong kind. Not that it makes much difference whether the child is a currawong or a cuckoo — mum and dad wear themselves out projecting their child into a future the parents will never see. Children are a dubious kind of immortality.

The love we give our children is so strong, it is out of all proportion to anything that motivates or justifies it. It persists in the face of contradiction. Our children might be cuckoos –not literally, but metaphorically — and we would not be swayed by that fact. We would sustain their growth even if it meant personal loss and the detriment of our kind.

And if we were cuckoos ourselves, would we see it? We might not.


[1] Based on the sound of the call, I think the local cuckoos are channel-billed cuckoos, or storm birds (https://australian.museum/learn/animals/birds/channel-billed-cuckoo/). Watch and hear them (mixed with the sound of a crow) here on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFCr_D8n6io. You can see baby storm birds growing up and hear their baby voices here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLOQ4G09tGs My own picture is impressionistic and not precise, as would be obvious to many bird enthusiasts.

© 2021 Craig Bingham

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2 comments

  1. Craig, I congratulate you on your industry.
    The cuckoo parents are smart and selfish whereas the currawongs are stupid, perhaps, but altruistic.
    Perhaps the nest has an Eton quality about it except that the cuckoos pay no fees.

    Like

  2. Hey Craig, I enjoyed your story about cuckoos. Harvey flew the nest at the beginning of our Melbourne lockdown so I know well the sense of abandonment. Ham has one eye on the door, just looking out for a nest of his own. I have been studying the behaviour of magpies, their joint efforts as a couple to protect their young. Their vigilance in warding off potential predators like bike riding humans is impressive. Strange transition this letting go of children. I’m not a fan, yet do experience satisfaction in their independence and clearly recall my own joy in fleeing the coup. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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