That afternoon as I came home for lunch I was alerted to this adult Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) with its usual deep booming calls. Spotted the bird near the Yellow Oleander Thevetia peruviana bush where it frequents to eat its toxic fruit. It was accompanied by two birds which looked very similar to Lesser Coucal. These birds are usually very shy and I was shooting them from a restricted window of my dining room through the glass window pane. Soon I found the Adult picked up some food from the ground and started feeding the other two smaller birds, then I realized that they are not Lesser Coucals, but sub adult Greater Coucals following their parent in foraging for food.
I was photographing though a very small area behind the window glass pane. When shooting through window glass panes beware of reflections on the glass. A reflection can make the image look washed out, even if no discernible details are visible in the reflection. For best results, bring the lens all the way to the glass, so that the front of the lens or hood makes a seal against the glass. That way, the only thing reflected will be the lens itself or the black inside of the lens hood. If you can’t get the lens or hood all the way to the glass, or if you need to shoot at a slight angle, then shield the opening between lens and glass. Use a dark cloth, sweatshirt, specialized glare hood. If nothing else, use your hand. Here I was using my Canon EF 1.4x III Extender with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L II IS USM on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III body.
Greater Coucal is a beautiful terrestrial bird, and although it resembles pheasants, it belongs to Cuculidae family, but it is not a brood parasite. It is also known as Crow Pheasant or Coucal. A widespread resident in Asia, from India, east to south China and Indonesia. They are large, crow-like with a long tail and coppery brown wings and found in wide range of habitats from jungle to cultivation and urban gardens. They are weak fliers, and are often seen clambering about in vegetation or walking on the ground as they forage for insects, eggs and nestlings of other birds. They have a familiar deep resonant call which is associated with omens in many parts of its range.
Adult has glossy black-purple head and body. Wings are bright chestnut on upperwing, and black on underwing. Long graduated tail is glossy dark green. Contrast between chestnut and black is very conspicuous in adults. Strong, heavy bill is blackish. Eyes are deep red. Legs and feet are dark grey. Both sexes are similar. The young when hatched have black skin and white hairy feathers (termed as trichoptiles) forming a fringe over the eye and beak. The center of the belly is pinkish and the upper mandible is black with a pink edge. The iris is brown, gape yellow and feet dark brown-gray.
The juvenile of race parroti is unmarked dull black on the underside (contrast to the barred in the northern races) and much darker, dusky chestnut on the wings. Race bubutus found in Southeast Asia has a distinct call. Individuals from the Western Ghats are very similar in size to the Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis but the Lesser Coucal has a stubbier bill, shorter tail, wing tips extending beyond the tertials and a chestnut wing lining, dark eyes and a tail with green/bronze sheen. Females of the race parroti develop dusky or sooty wing coverts between November and January and the northern boundary of the race is along the Punjab plains where it forms intermediates with the northern forms.
Greater Coucal feeds on large insects, caterpillars, young mice, snails, lizards, birds’ eggs, fruits and seeds. In Tamil Nadu they were found to feed predominantly on snails Helix vittata. They are also very fond of the toxic fruits of Thevetia peruviana (Yellow Oleander) in our garden. They sunbathe in the mornings singly or in pairs on the top of vegetation with their wings spread out. They are most active in the warm hours of the morning and in the late afternoon.
The calls are a booming low coop-coop-coops repeated and with variations and some duets between individuals. When duetting the female has a lower pitched call. Other calls include a rapid rattling “lotok, lotok …” and a harsh scolding “skeeaaaw” and a hissing threat call.
The breeding season is after the monsoon in southern India but varies in other parts of its range but chiefly June to September. Greater Coucals are monogamous, and the courtship display involves chases on the ground and the male brings food gifts for the female. The female lowers her tail and droops her wings to signal acceptance. The nest is built mostly by the male over about three to eight days. The nest is a deep cup with a dome in dense vegetation inside tangles of creepers, bamboo clump or Pandanus crowns. They can be built as high as 6m above the ground and the typical clutch is 3-5 eggs. The eggs (of size 36–28 mm weighing 14.8 g ) are chalky white with a yellow glaze when laid that wears off. Both the male and the female take part in nest building. They lay 2 to 4 eggs that hatch after 15–16 days of incubation. The chicks take 18–22 days to fledge. A study in southern India found that 77% of the eggs hatched and 67% fledged. Nests with eggs were sometimes abandoned or marauded by the Jungle Crow Corvus macrorhynchos.
The nictitating membrane seen in the photo below is a transparent or translucent third eyelid present in some animals that can be drawn across the eye for protection and to moisten it while maintaining visibility. Coucal has a full nictitating membrane. Often called a third eyelid or haw. In humans, the plica semilunaris (also known as the semilunar fold) and its associated muscles are homologous to the nictitating membranes seen in some other mammals and other vertebrates. Unlike the upper and lower eyelids, the nictitating membrane moves horizontally across the eyeball. It is normally translucent. Birds will blink repeatedly with their nictitating membranes to clear debris and spread moisture across the eyes. Woodpeckers tighten their nictitating membrane a millisecond prior to their beak impacting the trunk of a tree to prevent shaking-induced retinal injury.
The bird is associated with many superstitions and beliefs. The deep calls are associated with spirits and omens. In British India, it was noted that new-recruits to India often mistook it for a pheasant and shot it to find it “evil flavored” giving it the nickname of “Griff’s pheasant”. The flesh was once eaten as a folk cure for tuberculosis and pulmonary ailments.