Pallid cuckoo (Cuculus pallidus)

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Pallid cuckoo
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The pallid cuckoo is sometimes known as the brain-fever bird as it can call for hours on end, well into the night, and is therefore said to drive people mad.
  • Female pallid cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. The host birds are fooled into incubating the cuckoo eggs since they mimic the appearance of their own.
  • Young pallid cuckoos are so good at begging for food that species other than their host will abandon their own chicks temporarily to provide for them.
  • The pallid cuckoo is known to be most vocal following rain or a storm, and on nights with a full moon.
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Pallid cuckoo fact file

Pallid cuckoo description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCuculiformes
FamilyCuculidae
GenusCuculus (1)

The pallid cuckoo (Cuculus pallidus) is a noisy bird whose call often gives away its position long before it is actually seen (3). Male and female pallid cuckoos both have pale and dark morphs, and while these morphs differ in many respects, all individuals have a distinctive eye stripe that continues down each side of the neck, as well as dark barring across the underparts. The adult male pale morph has a light grey upper back, head and nape. The back of the neck also has an inconspicuous white spot that is more easily seen when the feathers are blown in the opposite direction (2).

The remainder of the pallid cuckoo’s upperparts are a dark grey or greyish-brown, except for the spotted white rump. The creamy-coloured underwing-coverts are marked with narrow grey bars, while the inner half of each wing feather has white bars on the underside. The pallid cuckoo’s underparts are pale grey, and the tail is dark brown with white spots on all feathers except the central pair. In the adult male dark morph the upperparts are darker and browner, with a reddish-brown patch on the back of the neck and increased white spotting on the wings (2).

The dark morph of the adult female pallid cuckoo is blackish-brown on the top of the head and back of the neck, with streaks of reddish-brown and a white spot like that of the male. Its distinctive, broad eye stripe is black and white. The dark brown upper back has rufous fringing on the feathers, while the rest of the upperparts are paler, mottled white, buff and reddish-brown. The dark brown wings are spotted with rufous-brown and pale buff. The underparts of the female pallid cuckoo are light grey, while the breast is a mottled rufous-brown and the flanks and undertail-coverts are barred with pale grey. As in the male, the female’s tail is dark brown with whitish-buff spots or bars on each feather. The adult female pale morph’s appearance is somewhere in between that of the pale male and dark female morphs (2).

The juvenile pallid cuckoo’s head is dark grey with a white eyebrow-like stripe above the eye, and a blackish stripe that runs through the eye, down each side of the neck to the breast. Its underparts are white and the chin, throat and breast are streaked with dark grey (2).

The vocalisations of the pallid cuckoo have resulted in this species’ alternative name of ‘brain-fever bird’, as its incessant call is said to drive people mad (3). A monotonous call of 8 to 19 whistled ascending notes can be given non-stop for hours on end (2) (3). Males pursuing a female give a rising ‘pip-pip-pip-pip’, while females produce a harsh, loud whistle. Female pallid cuckoos may also give a grating, single ‘cheer’ or a repetitive, high-pitched ‘wheeya’. Courtship feeding elicits a soft ‘keer-keer-keer’, and during flight a ‘kew-kew-kew-kew’ is given. The pallid cuckoo is particularly vocal following rain or a storm, and during nights with a full moon (2)

Also known as
brainfever bird, brain-fever bird, Palid cuckoo, unadorned cuckoo.
Synonyms
Cacomantis pallidus.
Size
Length: 31 cm (2)
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Pallid cuckoo biology

Although the pallid cuckoo feeds on most insects and their larvae, including beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies and moths (2), its primary food source is hairy caterpillars (2) (3). Plant foods consumed usually include Lantana and mistletoe berries, as well as nectar (2). Insect prey is normally found on tree branches or occasionally taken while in the air (7). Pallid cuckoos may also perch on low branches, dropping to the ground to pounce on prey when it is spotted (3). To rest after feeding, the bird perches on the uppermost branches of trees or on posts or rails where it can survey the surrounding area with ease (7).

In Australia, the pallid cuckoo’s breeding season varies slightly with geographic location. For instance, in Western Australia the breeding season runs from July to January, peaking in September, whereas in the east of its range the pallid cuckoo breeds from August to January, with peaks in October and November (2).

Like other cuckoos, the pallid cuckoo is a brood parasite, meaning its eggs are laid in the nests of other birds. It typically chooses host species that are insectivorous and that build open, cup-shaped nests. Examples of suitable host species include honeyeaters, whistlers, robins and flycatchers (6). The female pallid cuckoo replaces one of the host’s eggs with her own, similar-looking egg (3), which is an elongated oval shape and is glossy and pale pink with a few small, darker pink spots. The host bird incubates and hatches this egg alongside its own over a period of 12 to 14 days (2). The cuckoo egg normally hatches first, and as early as 48 hours after hatching the cuckoo chick will instinctively eject the other eggs or young from the nest (2) (3).

The young cuckoo grows rapidly, fast exceeding the size of the host, which is kept busy searching for food to satisfy the chick’s insatiable appetite (3). Interestingly, there have been many instances of cuckoo fledglings being fed by bird species other than the host. In addition, pallid cuckoo chicks have also been known to fly to other nests, where they are fed with greater priority than the resident bird’s own young. Fledgling cuckoos are fed by the hosts for up to six weeks (2).

The pallid cuckoo is a solitary species, occurring in pairs only during courtship. In late winter and early spring, pallid cuckoos are commonly seen conspicuously perched on bare branches or fence posts (6). During the spring this species is particularly active and quarrelsome, and it is not uncommon to see two or more males noisily chasing each other between the trees. The flight of the pallid cuckoo is straight and rapid (7)

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Pallid cuckoo range

The pallid cuckoo is widely distributed across Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. It is considered to be a vagrant on Christmas Island and in New Zealand (1). During the winter it leaves Tasmania completely (4), staying in coastal west, north and east Australia, the Lesser Sunda Islands and New Guinea (5)

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Pallid cuckoo habitat

Mainly found in open forest and woodland, the pallid cuckoo also occupies cleared, cultivated open country (3), mangroves (5), lowland eucalypt woodland, forest margins and clearings, all with nearby watercourses. It is partial to woodland where the upper canopy is dominated by eucalyptus trees (6).

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Pallid cuckoo status

The pallid cuckoo is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Pallid cuckoo threats

 

The pallid cuckoo is not considered to be globally threatened (2). However, this species is said to be declining within the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges of South Australia, where it has a very restricted distribution. Specific threats to the pallid cuckoo include habitat loss due to the clearance of vegetation, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and declines in its host species (8).

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Pallid cuckoo conservation

There are no known global conservation measures currently in place for the pallid cuckoo. However, the Biodiversity Conservation Unit of Australia’s Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources coordinates biodiversity programmes in the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges. These programmes undertake research and plan the management of locally threatened species, including the pallid cuckoo, and provide support for private landowners to manage their land in a way that is beneficial to this species (9).

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Find out more

More on the pallid cuckoo:

Find out more about conservation in the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges, South Australia:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Brood parasite
An animal that lays its eggs in the nests of members of its own or other species; the host then raises the young as its own.
Coverts
Small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Insectivorous
Insect-eating.
Larva
Immature stage in an animal’s lifecycle, after it hatches from an egg and before it changes into the adult form. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but are usually unable to reproduce.
Morph
Colour variation (also known as phase).
Nape
The back of the neck.
Vagrant
An individual found outside the normal range of the species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Erritzøe, J., Mann, C., Brammer, F. and Fuller, R. (2012) Cuckoos of the World. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  3. BirdLife Australia - Pallid cuckoo (November, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/pallid-cuckoo
  4. Hobson, K. and Wassenaar, L. (2008) Tracking Animal Migration with Stable Isotopes. Volume 2 of Terrestrial Ecology Series. Academic Press, Amsterdam.
  5. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe Jr, B. (1991) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
  6. Tzaros, C. (2005) Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  7. Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. John Gould, London.
  8. Department for Environment and Heritage (2008) Adelaideand Mount Lofty Ranges, South Australia. Threatened Species Profile: Pallid Cuckoo (Cacomantis pallidus). Department for Environment and Heritage, Government of South Australia, Adelaide. Available at:
    http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/
  9. Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, South Australia - Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges (November, 2012)
    http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/Plants_Animals/Threatened_species_ecological_communities/Regional_significant_projects/AMLR
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Pallid cuckoo  
Pallid cuckoo

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