Channel-billed cuckoo

Scythrops novaehollandiae Latham, 1790

Order: Cuculiformes

Family: Cuculidae

New Zealand status: Native

Conservation status: Vagrant

Other names: flying walking-stick, channelbilled cuckoo, channel billed cuckoo

Geographical variation: There are three subspecies: Scythrops novaehollandiae novaehollandiae in Australia, New Guinea and the Moluccas, Scythrops novaehollandiae fordi in Sulawesi, and Scythrops novaehollandiae schoddei in the Bismarck Archipelago

Channel-billed cuckoo. Adult. Granite Gorge, Queensland, December 2016. Image © Imogen Warren by Imogen Warren

Channel-billed cuckoo. Adult. Granite Gorge, Queensland, December 2016. Image © Imogen Warren by Imogen Warren

The channel-billed cuckoo is a huge cuckoo with an enormous pale bill, reminiscent of a hornbill. Its unusual elongated silhouette in flight is the source of its alternative name of ‘flying walking-stick’. It is both the largest cuckoo and the largest brood parasite in the world. The channel-billed cuckoo is a common migrant to Australia and a very occasional vagrant to New Zealand, where there have been six records scattered from the Far North to Invercargill.

Identification

Compared to other cuckoos, the channel-billed cuckoo is enormous. About the size of a New Zealand pigeon, it has a large, heavy downward curving pale yellow bill, and a very long grey tail with a black subterminal band and white tip. The head and neck are pale grey blue, merging into a paler breast and belly with faint barring. The back and wings are medium grey with rows of dark grey checks. The underwing is pale, with a prominent dark trailing edge. There is an orange-red patch of bare skin around the eye and to the base of the bill. Females are slightly smaller, with a smaller bill and paler, more barred undersides. Juveniles have buff rather than grey plumage, a less massive pinkish bill, and lack the red skin around the eye.

Voice: a loud, melodious trumpeting.

There are no similar species.

Distribution and habitat

The channel-billed cuckoo has very large range, extending throughout Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia and Pacific Islands including the Bismark Archipelago. It breeds throughout coastal forests of northern and eastern Australia, where it is present between September and April. Preferred habitats include subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests, and subtropical or tropical mangrove forests.

New Zealand records

The first New Zealand record of channel-billed cuckoo was a bird shot in Invercargill in December 1924. The second was a bird at Ngataki, Aupori Peninsula October 1986 to January 1987. Three were found dead in October-November 1996 at Ocean Beach, Raglan; Te Paki, Far North; and Pukerua Bay, Wellington. The last confirmed sighting was one at Mangawhai Heads in October 2002. Details of a bird seen on Motiti Island in January 2007 have yet to be submitted to the Records Appraisal Committee of Birds New Zealand.

Breeding

The channel-billed cuckoo is an obligate brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of crows, magpies, butcher birds and currawongs. The introduced Australian magpie is a potential host in New Zealand. Courtship feeding has been observed in Australia, with the male presenting items of food such as insects to the female. Cuckoos have been observed working in pairs to provoke the host bird to leave the nest, allowing the female cuckoo to lay eggs in the host nest while the adult is distracted. Unlike most parasitic cuckoos, the chicks of the channel-billed cuckoo do not eject the host species’ eggs or chicks. However, the chicks of the channel-billed cuckoo grow quickly and dominate the food supply, and so the host chicks rarely fledge.

Behaviour and ecology

In Australia, channel-billed cuckoos have been observed to congregate in large raucous flocks. It is a strong flier, with a distinctive, almost hawk-like cruciform flight silhouette, and a wingspan of about a metre. It is thought that channel-billed cuckoos form pair bonds for the duration of the breeding season in Australia.

Food

The channel-billed cuckoo is predominantly fruigivorous, mainly eating figs. It also takes large invertebrates, and the eggs and chicks of other birds. There are no records of its diet in New Zealand.

Weblinks

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel-billed_Cuckoo

References

Anderson, M.G.; Hauber, M.E.2007. A recognition-free mechanism for reliable rejection of brood parasites. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22: 283-286.

Anderson, M.G.; Hauber, M.E.2007. The cuckoos. Quarterly Review of Biology 82: 283-286.

BirdLife International 2012 Species factsheet: Scythrops novaehollandiae. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 29/08/2012.

Davies N.B. 2000. Cuckoos, cowbirds and other cheats.PrincetonUniversity Press.

Mason I.J.; Forrester R.I. 1996. Geographical differentiation in the channel-billed cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae Latham, with description of two new subspecies from Sulawesi and the Bismarck Archipelago Emu 96: 217-233.

Payne, R.B. 2005. The cuckoos.OxfordUniversity Press.Oxford,England.

Tennyson, A.; Brackenbury, G. 1998. Channel-billed cuckoos in New Zealand in spring 1996. Notornis 45: 223-226.

Recommended citation

Seabrook-Davison, M.N.H. 2013. Channel-billed cuckoo. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Channel-billed cuckoo

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