Red-faced malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCuculiformes
FamilyCuculidae
GenusPhaenicophaeus (1)
SizeLength: 46 cm (2)

The red-faced malkoha is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

This incontrovertibly distinctive bird belongs in the cuckoo family, sharing distinguishing features such as long tail feathers and zygodactyl feet: two toes pointing forwards, and two backwards. The breast and back are black, the underparts white, and the tail a mix of black and white. It is the head of the red-faced malkoha that is the most beautiful, with a large, pale green bill and a red patch of bare skin surrounding the eyes. The feet and legs are aquamarine in colour. Juveniles are duller than adults with a smaller facial patch and less bright red colour. Adults are very quiet but may yelp or call with a kra sound occasionally (2) (3).

The red-faced malkoha is known to be present in southwest Sri Lanka, and there are additional unconfirmed reports from Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India (2) (3) (4). This species was widespread at the end of the 19th Century, but the current population stands at just a few thousand individuals (3).

Like many other malkoha species, the red-faced malkoha prefers the tops of tall trees in thick, undisturbed forest. It occasionally glides to the forest floor, but only in areas of particularly dense undergrowth. It has weak flight and glides more often than flapping, perhaps explaining its preference for remaining at the tops of trees (4).

Most cuckoos are insect-eaters, and whilst the red-faced malkoha will snatch insects from the leaves of the canopy, the majority of its diet is fruit, especially berries. Pairs forage together, and often as part of mixed-species groups (4).

A male and female malkoha form a pair bond which is thought to last for at least a year. They breed between January and May, and occasionally also in August and September, depending on the conditions. Nests are constructed from grass, roots and twigs and are formed into shallow cups. They are commonly located in thick undergrowth, as high up as possible. The female lays two or three eggs, which once hatched are tended to by both the male and the female, who take it in turns to forage for themselves and their chicks (3) (4).

It was previously thought that the red-faced malkoha made seasonal migrations up and down mountains to take advantage of optimal weather and fruit availability, but fragmentation of what was originally continuous forest appears to have prevented the malkoha from making the journey to the highlands (4).

The red-faced malkoha was said to be considered a delicacy by local people, but the cost of ammunition and strict controls on weapons prevent this from becoming a serious threat. Additionally, in some areas there are cultural taboos surrounding the killing of animals. Much more of a problem, however, is the extensive deforestation of Sri Lanka for agriculture, plantations, urbanisation, fuel-wood for domestication use and the brick-making industry, and for gem-mining enterprises. Within the wet zone that the red-faced malkoha prefers, just nine percent forest cover remains (4).

Large parts of the range of this species are within national parks and sanctuaries and it is illegal to kill or keep it following an amendment in 1993 to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1938. However, certain national parks and sanctuaries are said to be neglected. A moratorium passed in 1990 protects all remaining wet-zone forests from logging. The needs and distribution of the red-faced malkoha and other Sri Lankan species were assessed as part of an important survey between 1991 and 1996. It has been suggested that subsidies and seeds could be provided to land owners, and even garden owners so that they are able to plant timber, fruit and medicinal plants in order to reduce pressure on the forests and disturbance of the species that live there (4).

For further information on the red-faced malkoha see:

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

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2008)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Birding India (April, 2006)
    http://www.birding.in
  3. Birdlife International (March, 2008)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=1256&m=0
  4. BirdLife International. (2001) Threatened Birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://birdbase.hokkaido-ies.go.jp/rdb/rdb_en/phaepyrr.pdf