Burchell’s Coucal

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South African poet Douglas Livingstone refers to the call of the Burchell's coucal as the "rainbird's liquid note". This so aptly describes the sound made by Centropus burchelli which sounds remarkably similar to water being poured from a narrow-necked bottle, and is believed to signal the onset of rain. This is due to the bird's tendency for bursting into song during periods of high humidity, before during and after rain.

Widely dispersed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Burchell's coucal is endemic and found mainly in South Africa, although they have also been spotted as far north as Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Burchell's coucal is an attractive bird, although not often seen. Being a shy species, it spends most of its time secluded in dense undergrowth and scrub even when venturing into suburban gardens. It is a rich chestnut-brown colour with marked bands on its upperparts, a black head, creamy undercarriage and a long black tail; similar in appearance to the Northern Hemisphere's white-browed coucal, Centropus superciliosus.

Despite its handsome appearance and gentle song, the bird is a voracious predator, frequently raiding the nests of other birds to feast on any young nestlings and eggs it finds there. A large bird, measuring 40cm from beak to tail, it will devour anything smaller than itself and also preys on frogs, lizards, rodents and insects. In return, the Burchell's coucal has to keep an eye out for hungry eagles and sparrowhawks.

The coucal does most of its hunting in the dense foliage, but will occasionally pursue prey on the ground and is a fast runner.

Although the coucal is one of 30 species belonging to the cuckoo family, they are not brood parasites. The males are classically hen-pecked. Being smaller, they are responsible for the care of the chicks once the larger female has deposited the eggs in a deep cup-shaped nest of grass and leaves, also built by the male.

Between 2 and 5 eggs are usually laid, over a number of days, and the fledglings emerge after about 2 weeks. They are adept at clambering about in the bushes long before they are able to fly and leave the nest after 21 days, although they rely on their parents for several weeks after that.

Listen out for the unusual call of this reclusive bird and see if you can spot it in the dense foliage nearby or racing along the ground in pursuit of a meal.


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Sunday, 18 November 2018