Time runs out for broody cuckoos

2011-03-12 00:00

I AM surprised by the number of parasitic birds that are still calling for mates to pop an egg into an unwary host’s nest. Not only the cuckoos — I have both Diederick and Klaas’s in my garden — but also the energetic little Pintailed Whydah that still accosts anything with feathers in the hope of a quickie. Surely by now the host species have finished their breeding cycle, so these guys are wasting their time; I always thought nature was sharper than that. To my (biased) ear the songs of Diederick and Klaas’s are sounding more and more mournful as if they are aware of the futility of the effort.

Cuckoos must match their eggs pretty closely to the chosen host’s so as not to be noticed. As there are, for example, 22 known hosts of the Klaas’s Cuckoo this would suggest that it must hang about in the vicinity of its foster home when seeking a mate, so that the egg is likely to be laid in the correct host’s nest. Or maybe there is a lot more luck in it; if you choose the right nest that’s a hit, if the wrong one, it is simply a miss. Nature is probably a lot like that; it is the result of the hits that we see and the misses are simply not recorded.

My friend Carol from Richmond popped in yesterday and related a delightful tale of parental guidance in Bronze Mannikins. She has made a cage over her seed dispenser; only some of the holes are large enough for the mannikins to get through, and none big enough for the doves and weavers. Each year at this time the Bronze Mannikin families arrive with their newest brood in attendance and Carol has observed how the parent bird will go to a hole of the correct size, pop through and then back out again to demonstrate the correct entrance to use to get to the seed. After a couple of in-and-outs the kids get the hang of it and everyone enjoys the meal. Now that’s good parenting for you.

With a heavy heart I have to report that the pair of Purple-crested Louries that I was so excited about having in my garden have flown off to pastures new. I have a sneaky feeling that they were only here to feast on the fruit on my Ficus ingens; the figs are now finished and the birds have left. I am quite bereft!

It has been hotter and dryer than usual of late and I think this must have a knock-on effect on the bugs and creepy-crawlies that our insectivores are reliant upon. My worm-eating brigade seem more and more pushy, coming right into the sitting room now to demand worms. The carpet I chose so carefully with a pattern to blend with the bird-pooh looks blotchier every day – I now know that bird-pooh has a unique pattern all of its own and it has never been re-created by man!

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