Also known as Stormbird or Storm-bird, the channel-billed cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae) is an Australian bird, which can be distinguished from other species of the genus Scythrops by its massive pale, down-curved bill.
Cuckoos are birds in the family Cuculidae, the cuckoo order of which they are one of the two families, the other being the roadrunners. The word cuckoo, which has been around since at least AD 1000, came from the Old French cocu, meaning cuckold; it was originally used in reference to adult males, but then was also applied to females and juveniles as well, despite adults having no horns in either sex.
Billions of years of evolution have led to incredible diversity among bird species, which account for nearly 10% of all living vertebrates. Some birds are enormous; others are incredibly small.
Some birds migrate thousands of miles every year, while others remain in the same territory their whole lives. One of the most interesting and mysterious bird species is the channel-billed cuckoo, native to Australia and Papua New Guinea.
You might be familiar with the European or common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which reproduces and hosts in the nests of other birds, leaving them to do all the work of raising their young. There’s another bird that does something similar; it’s called the channel-billed cuckoo and it lives in tropical and subtropical Australia and New Guinea, where it lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species.
The scientific name of the channel-billed cuckoo is Scythrops novaehollandiae.
Range and habitat
Channel-billed cuckoos can also be found in northern and eastern Australia, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, as well as Asian islands as far west as Sulawesi in Indonesia. Sulawesi, Flores, and Bismarck Archipelagos are permanent residents of the species.
Channel-billed cuckoo size and weight
The channel-billed cuckoo is the largest of the cuckoos found in Australia, measuring up to 56 to 0 cm (22 to 28 inches) in length, with a wingspan of around 88 to 107 cm (35 to 42 inches). They weigh an average of 560 to 935 g (19.8 to 33 oz).
What does channel-billed cuckoo look like?
Their backs and wings are gray with dark scallops, their bellies and abdomens are white, and their underbodies have fine dark stripes. The long, pale-grey tail has a black band near the tip. A black and white barring can be seen on the undertail. In flight, its tail and wings form a cross-shaped silhouette.
A bare patch of red skin covers the eyes and is near the base of the bill. A dark grey color covers its legs and feet. There is no red around the eyes of the young birds, and their brown, buff, and gray coloring is mottled.
Immature birds have olive to brown eyes and a smaller bill.
Complete post-juvenile body molting commences soon after fledging, but some or all remiges are retained until migration to non-breeding areas in New Guinea and Indonesia where remaining young feathers are molted. Many juvenile remiges retain their plumage until migration to non-breeding areas in Australia, which can result in plumage that is similar to adults.
During the molting process, the old feathers are replaced by new feathers. This occurs on a regular basis in order to keep the bird’s plumage looking healthy and vibrant. During this time, they may appear sick or lethargic as they are not able to fly and hunt for food.
The process of molting can last anywhere from one day to two weeks depending on the species of bird. It is important to provide them with extra shelter and protection during this time because their ability to protect themselves against predators is limited. Birds that molt often make noise which warns other birds about their vulnerability.
A typical cuckoo egg is laid in the nest of another bird (e.g. a magpie, currawong, or crow), which in turn raises the cuckoo chicks.
Diet and foraging
Channel-billed cuckoos typically feed on fruit, but also eat insects, and have been observed eating the eggs and young of other bird species.
They mainly forage on the ground but will also fly up into trees to search for food.
Channel billed cuckoo sound and vocal behavior
Channel-billed Cuckoos are known for their loud, raucous calls that can be heard for kilometers. In the beginning, the sound is loud “kawk, kawk”, then softer and rapid “awk, awk, awk” follows. In the breeding season, few of its calls can be heard at night, regardless of the fact that it is not strictly a nocturnal bird.
In the breeding season, they arrive in northern and eastern Australia between August and October. The species is migratory, traveling south from New Guinea and Indonesia each year.
After breeding is complete in February and March, they leave Australia.
Courtship displays precede mating: females call from high branches, and males approach, offering insects. Most typically, 1 to 2 eggs are laid in the nests of other birds, such as Magpie-larks, Australian Magpies, Pied Currawongs, and various corvids (ravens and crows).
The young Channel-billed Cuckoos, unlike many other cuckoos, don’t take eggs or young from their hosts; instead, they grow faster and eat more food than their hosts, causing the others to starve.
The channel-bill’s lifespan is about 8 years.
Movements and migration
The Channel-billed Cuckoo is a migratory bird, which means it spends the breeding season in Australia and migrates to Indonesia and New Guinea to spend the non-breeding season. The Channel-billed cuckoo has been found migrating as far north as Taiwan and Japan during its yearly migration.
Diseases and threats
The channel-billed cuckoo is threatened by habitat loss, introduced predators and avian malaria. Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats to the species, as forest clearing for logging and agriculture has reduced its range.
Introduced predators such as feral cats and rats prey on eggs and chicks. Avian malaria infects the bird’s red blood cells which reduce its ability to fight infection. It can be transmitted from mosquitoes in the bird’s native habitat or when they are transported overseas.
There are only a few reports of the disease outside New Zealand and Australia, but more studies need to be done in other countries to know if it is also present there.
The Channel-billed Cuckoo is a migratory bird that has been listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. The primary reason for their conservation status is due to the fact that they are widely distributed, with only small populations in some parts of Asia and New Zealand.
Channel-billed cuckoo facts
The Channel-Billed Cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae) is a small, brown bird that can be found throughout Australia. It’s one of the few species of cuckoos that also lay eggs in the nests of other birds, including those belonging to magpies and ravens.
After about 10 days, their egg hatches, and the young cuckoo then forces out any other chicks from the nest by starving them, by eating more food quickly than their host.