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Elusive Indian cuckoo rare resident or migrant

In the morning on April 4, 1980 a young gem-prospector from Avissawella was standing in the compound of his Wadiya (cabin) in a place called Weli-Oya in the heart of Elahera gem-country. All around him was the tall jungle when suddenly, from a shady tree nearby, a strange bird flew towards him with two Kaha-Kurullas (Black-headed Orioles), in hot pursuit. The strange bird resembled a small hawk in shape and colour, and the young naturally thought that it had been trying to get at the eggs or at the young orioles. The bird settled on a low branch nearby, and on impulse the man grabbed it in his hand. Then with the consent of others in the camp, he placed the bird in an improvised cage. He fed it on dry fish, soaked in water, which did not appear to suit its palate.

Evidence

A short while later the pair of orioles arrived in search of the young bird, and strangely enough, carrying beak-full of wild berries, and fed them to the youngster, through the peep holes left on the side of the wooden cage.

Indian Cuckoo

These too, the young bird refused to partake of. Whereupon, the orioles disappeared back to the jungle and soon returned with butterflies and worms (caterpillars), which seemed agreeable to the young bird.

They continued to fend for the foster baby for about a week when the young man started off for his home town, taking the young bird along with him. Little did he know that the young bird he held in that cardboard box was authentic evidence that would help solve an ornithological riddle, being debated in local bird circles for several decades.

On information received from the people about-town, I could trace the young man and his captive bird to a trade stall in the Avissawella public market. When I confronted him the man had no idea that the young bird was a cuckoo, and even after I explained to him in details the breeding biology of these birds, he was not enlightened.

He continued to feed the bird on fresh prawns, fish etc. I advised him to make the food as soft as possible, and recommended earth worms as a substitute.

I proposed that he hand over the bird to me, but he bluntly rejected the money I offered to pay him in return.

However, he agreed to accompany me to a picture studio in town and get a photograph of the baby cuckoo. I enclosed a copy of the picture in my report to the Ceylon Bird Club, end of the month.

Before leaving, I requested the man to preserve the skin of the bird in case should it die. But, on the following weekend when I looked for them the bird had died two days previously, and I could trace neither the young man nor the place where he had buried the dead bird.

The writer had, however, closely examined the bird and tentatively identified it as juvenile of the Indian Cuckoo, a migratory species long suspected to breed in the island.

The bird was well pledged and able to fly for short distances. Its head, neck and the upper breast were black with slightly black margins on the feathers. The wings were sooty-black and sparsely marked with chestnut or dark grey, the primaries and secondaries, being totally black. The under-parts and the flanks were dirty white. The tail was blackish with a darker sub-terminal band and the feathers tipped white.

The legs were pink yellow and the feet as in all other true cuckoos were zygodactyle, i.e. second and third toes directed forward, while the first and the fourth toes point backwards.

The wing converts were browner than the rest. The underside of the wings was black with paler cross-bars. These descriptions sufficiently tallied with those given by Wait (1931) and Ben King (1975) for the immature of the Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus.

In size the Indian Cuckoo is smaller than a green pigeon and slimmer. In coloration it strongly resembles a member of the Hawk family. Its flight is straight and slow, the wings being short as in the other cuckoos.

After flying to a new perch it often oscillates its hind quarters, while holding the wings in a drooping position and the tail slightly elevated. Its loud yet musical call sounds more like "whee-whee h'yar-do. (the first syllables on the same note, the following ones in a descending scale) and is constantly uttered in the early months of the year. After the call it flies to a new perch to start its dolorous music once again.

Phillips' Annotated Checklist (1978 Revised Edition) vide page 47:The Indian Cuckoo belongs to the family Cuculidae (Cuckoos) and is probably a resident in the Low-Country Dry Zone as well as a visitor to that Zone, and also a winter visitor, occasionally, to the Wet Zone and the Hill Zone.

"Breeds during June and young have have been found in the nest of the Ceylon Black-headed Oriole Oriolus xanthornu ceylonensis". Henry vide page 168 "Status of this cuckoo in Ceylon is somewhat doubtful, while nearly all specimens hitherto procured in the island have been taken during the North-East monsoon-probably indicating winter migration there is evidence that, occasionally, at least it breeds in the island.

It is very desirable that definite information on the breeding of this cuckoo in Ceylon should be obtained; its eggs are likely to be deposited in the nests of drongos, flycatchers or Black-headed Orioles, hence any instances of these birds feeding young not of their own species should be carefully investigated and recorded."

Specimen

In June 1949, a specimen procured by S.V.O. Somanadar of Batticaloa at Unnichai in the Eastern Province, on being dissected contained embryo eggs.

"This lends support to the belief that bird is resident, probably breeding in the Eastern Province and the other areas, unless the shot specimen was a straggler which had failed to return northwards to its breeding haunts when the migrating season had ended.

The other possibility is that there are probably two forms of the species in Ceylon, one a migrant and the other resident", he contends. In the early 1960s the writer had the opportunity to study this rare cuckoo in the Gal Oya Valley.

Through the firsthand information thus gained, it may be assumed that although the Indian Cuckoo is in main a migrant, a few non-breeding loiterers might be found here during the South-West monsoon period. Now that authentic evidence of its breeding in the island is available this should point to the fact that there might be a purely resident race of this cuckoo in Sri Lanka.

Observations

The Indian Cuckoo is as much popular as the Indian Koel among the local people in the Eastern Province, and they have a name for it, too. They call it "Kotta Pakkan" (dried arecanut), perhaps in imitation its far-reaching loud call.

A friend who knows as much about of our jungles and their denizens as any jungle dweller, once said its Sinhala name is "Kona Kurulla".

The late Dr. R. L. Spittel, in his book of jungle adventure "Wild Ceylon" refers to this cuckoo says that the hill people of Central Sri Lanka know this by the name of "Botuwa Kapan" (cut the throat), again onomatopoeic rendering of its call.

In India, the call is variously described as Boukko Tako, Kyphul-Pakka, Orange Pekoe or Kithe - toppan and by the European community as Captain Philpots or Crossword Puzzle.

 

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