Wildlife: The seldom seen Piet-my-vrou makes its presence heard

2008-11-18 00:00

In Prestbury the hiss of rain during Monday night was accompanied by the constant calling of the Piet-my-vrou. The bird, officially called in English the red-chested cuckoo, arrived in early October, but only with the recent rains has it made its presence known.

It is a bird that is definitely heard rather than seen. Even keen bird photographer Mark Wing was apologetic about the photograph that accompanies this article. “Bit of a blow-up, but the best I have,” he said. “Had to take it from a distance.”

It is the male red-chested cuckoo that gives the distinctive call, rendered by one bird book as “weet-weet-weeoo”, which has been interpreted as saying, in Afrikaans, “Piet-my-vrou” (Pete my wife). A strange snatch of dialogue, yet the phrase perfectly fits the three notes of the bird’s signature tune.

Uphezukomkhono, the bird’s call in Zulu and its Zulu name, connects the bird to the season of its appearance. According to my colleague, Dumisani Zondi, the call is a harbinger of the spring sowing season. “It means you must go and hoe the land.” The literal translation from Zulu means “on top of the arm” and Adrian Koopman, in his book Zulu Names, confirms Zondi’s interpretation.

“The call of this bird in spring marks the beginning of the ploughing season,” says Koopman, “when it is time for the field workers to put hoes on top of their arms [shoulder?] and go to the fields.”

The Piet-my-vrou is a summer migrant and a parasitic breeder that lays a single egg in the nests of other birds. Preferred hosts include robin-chats, chats, thrushes and flycatchers. The egg incubates quicker than those of the host and consequently hatches earlier so the hatchling is able to kick the other eggs out of the nest and become the sole occupant.

“Having the undivided attention of its foster parents [it] grows rapidly and soon dwarfs them,” according to the late ornithologist, Kenneth Newman.

We are now in the middle of the Piet-my-vrou’s breeding season so we will be hearing its voice for a while longer and, whereas other birds mostly sing at dawn or dusk, the Piet-my-vrou can strike up at any hour of the day or night. Early in the new year it will change its tune, the notes becoming drawn out, less distinctive, like a clockwork music box winding down. By the end of February the bird will have returned to central Africa.

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