Cuckoos are renowned for their brood parasitism – the behaviour of laying their eggs in other bird species’ nests. Our popular culture is replete with tales about how the musical Asian Koel befuddles even the extremely clever crows to make them incubate its eggs and bring up the young ones. Many cultures across the world share similar tales about their native cuckoos species.
However, some cuckoos build their own nests and bring up their young. Two genera are found around Karnataka – Coucals (Centropus sp.) and Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus sp.).
Coucals – Greater and Lesser
The booming coop coop coop coming from the undergrowth in the morning is hard to miss, especially if one leaves the bustling city for the countryside or the wilderness. Occasionally, the caller pops out – a black-coloured bird, about the size of a crow, with a long tail and bright chestnut wings. This is a Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis).
Widespread across most of South Asia and South-east Asia, a variety of subspecies (often treated as full species) of the Greater Coucal have been described. The race parroti found in Karnataka is often referred to as a full species – the Southern Coucal – and is found across most of peninsular India.
The Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis) has a much smaller distribution compared to the Greater Coucal. It is found across South-east Asia, extending into North-east India and the Terai regions. There is also a population that is patchily distributed in the Western Ghats.
In breeding plumage, they resemble the Greater Coucal. Smaller in size, they have a shorter beak, whitish tail tip and dark-brown iris (compared to the bright red iris in the Greater Coucal) They also have a distinct non-breeding plumage, with an overall brownish streaked colouration. They are usually found singly or in pairs in marshy or grassy areas at forest edges.
Coucals prefer the understorey and are often found on the ground or close to it. They usually prey on small animals – rodents, lizards, snakes, insects, frogs, molluscs, even bats. They browse through the foliage methodically, picking up prey that comes along. They are not strong fliers and are often seen making short ungainly flights to disappear into the understorey.
The nest has been described as “a large untidy globular structure like a Rugby football”, “of twigs and leaves, or mainly leaves of elephant grass or bamboo, with a lateral entrance; sometimes a deep cup with the dome formed by intertwining the surrounding living foliage and creeper stems. Placed within a thick bush or bamboo clump or among the branches of a thorny tree, at moderate heights, usually well concealed amongst tangled vines.”, according to Salim Ali and Ripley. 3-4 chalky-white eggs are typically laid.
They also narrate an interesting folklore. “There is a curious folk-belief common to such far-flung parts of the country as Saurashtra and South Kanara (possibly more general) that the crow-pheasant’s nest is lined with some particularly valuable (and magical!) kind of ‘grass’ known in Kanara as sinjivini kiddi (‘life-giving herb’) – which can be separated from the rest of the material by throwing it into a stream, whereupon the former will flow against the current!”
Malkohas –Blue-faced and Sirkeer
Malkoha – Sinhala for flower-cuckoo (mal-koha). These large cuckoos are an Asian genus, with 2 species found in Karnataka – Blue-faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus viridirostris) and Sirkeer Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus leschenaultii).
The Blue-faced Malkoha is endemic to Southern India and Sri Lanka. The first thing that strikes one about the bird is the bright blue “eye-ring”, a characteristic that gives the bird its common name. The bright-green bill gives the bird its Latin name (viridirostris) as well as the earlier common name – Small Green-billed Malkoha.
Unlike the rest of the birds in this article, this bird spends most of its time in trees where it is often seen negotiating the branches with the ease of a squirrel while it seeks out its prey.
Sirkeer Malkoha is resident across the Indian subcontinent, where it inhabits rocky habitats and thorny scrub. Overall light-brown in colour, its striking red and yellow bill stands out immediately.
Its hunting behaviour is not very different from a Greater Coucal, as it stalks along the ground or hops from branch to branch scanning the tree for food. When threatened, the bird prefers to run on the ground rather than fly away. As it runs with its head ducked and tail parallel to the ground, the first impression it gives is that of a mongoose scuttling away.
Like the coucals, Malkohas have a weak flight and, when disturbed, prefer to disappear into the undergrowth (Blue-faced) or among the rocks (Sirkeer). In flight, their long graduated white-tipped tails make for easy identification of the birds.
Both Malkohas build nests that look like “an untidy saucer of twigs lined with green leaves, roughly wedged into the fork of a ‘cactus’ (Euphorbia) or branching shrub…Not deliberately concealed, but easily overlooked.”, according to Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley. The Sirkeer Malkoha’s nest is normally 2-3 metres from the ground, while the Blue-faced Malkoha nests around 1-2 metres from the ground. 2 eggs, sometimes 3, are laid and they are chalky-white in colour.
Watch out for Greater Coucals and Blue-faced Malkohas in most JLR resorts. Lesser Coucal has been reported from Bhadra. Sirkeer Malkohas are often seen at Daroji Wildlife Sanctuary and along the Cauvery River (Bheemeshwari and Galibore).