The Diederik Cuckoo

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All cuckoos are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in another bird's nest and leave the other species to raise their young. Saving itself the effort of raising and nurturing its young leaves the cuckoo with more time to focus on laying eggs, sometimes up to five a day during the 12-week breeding season.

Not that it is easy finding a suitable foster parent for your young. Diederik cuckoos prefer to deposit their eggs in the capable care of the weavers and widowbirds. The design of the weaver's nest means that it is no mean feat to enter and leave these nests undetected. Many a female bird has met her demise in the process, after being caught red handed by the host female.

Naturally, the host bird cannot be in attendance during the egg-laying process and the female diederik cuckoo has to lurk in close proximity to the newly-built nest to ensure her absence during the procedure. As soon as the nest is empty, the female diederik cuckoo nips in to do the dirty work.

Cuckoo eggs are small, and patterned to closely resemble the host bird's own eggs. They can be produced in just ten seconds – ensuring a clean getaway for the female in most cases. Once she has made her deposit, the female cuckoo pushes many existing eggs out of the nest and leaves as quickly and stealthily as she arrived.

Upon emerging from its egg, the imposter makes quick work of any other hatchlings and eggs, and settles in to enjoy the labours of its foster parent. After about twenty-one days, it is ready to leave the nest and begin its life as a fully-fledged cuckoo.

It is truly amazing how a small tawny-coloured weaver can raise the much larger cuckoo, hued in copper and brown, without noticing the difference, but even more amazing how the orphan turns into a cuckoo at all.

Despite having no contact with its own kind during the formative moments of its life, the diederik cuckoo knows how to produce the signature 'deed-deed-deed-deed-er-ik' call for which it is named. It will recognise the emerald green and white plumage of its own kind, keep a lookout for its mortal enemy, the predatory Wahlberg's eagle, and manage to find a mate in order to begin the vicious circle once again.

Thanks to these clever survival tactics, the diederik cuckoo is common in southeastern Africa, have you managed to spot one yet?

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Tuesday, 17 October 2017