As I am writing this blog, it is drizzling outside giving a much needed relief from searing heat which started few days ago. But this is not really a monsoon rain. In the month of May-June, India awaits eagerly for the south west monsoon rain which brings much needed relief from the sweltering heat of summer. Pied cuckoo is partially migratory and in India, it has been considered a harbinger of the Monsoon rains due to the timing of its arrival.
Last November I saw this Pied Cuckoo(Clamator jacobinus) on a Singapore cherry tree (Muntingia calabura) which had young berries all over. It flew and landed on a branch very close to me. I was using my Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM fited with Canon EF 1.4x III Extender on my Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. The bird was at the closest focusing distance from the lens. Unfortunately the background where the bird was sitting was not clutter less. There was quite a bit of shrub & grass between me and the bird.
The Jacobin Cuckoo, Pied Cuckoo, or Pied Crested Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) is a member of the cuckoo family that is found in Africa and Asia. Appearance is distinct. It is a slender, long-tailed, crested, black-and-white bird larger than bulbul. The spot on the wing appears as a white band in flight. Sexes alike. In juveniles, the crest is less developed and the wing patch is smaller than in adults. What is deep black in adults is dull and sooty in juveniles. The species is mainly arboreal and is very conspicuous during breeding season (June-August). Call is a metallic peew piu-piu-(piu); pee-ew; piu… (piu… pee-pee-piu).
In his epic poem Meghaduta, Sanskrit Poet Kalidasa draws parallels between the thirst of the Pied Cuckoo for the rain and the yearning of a pious heart for the divine. In parts of north India, the bird is known as the chatak, or the one that lives on drops of rain. Its black crest is construed as a second beak that points up at the sky, waiting for rain to quench its thirst. Farmers in Gujarat have christened the pied cuckoo kharadiyo, because they believe that its song is louder and more plaintive during kharad, the intermittent dry period between rainy days. Similar anecdotes are found in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, but as interesting as they might be, they don’t qualify as scientific evidence.
Does the bird always arrive before the monsoon? In all parts of the country? How does it know when the monsoon is going to arrive? Couldn’t the relationship between the two be purely coincidental? The bird is an exception on two counts compared to other migratory birds. It is the only bird that migrated from Africa to India; and did so in summer. The only real evidence, apart from stray sighting records over the years, was a paper by ornithologist Hugh Whistler in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1928. In his paper, Whistler wrote an impressive collection of sighting records of the bird from across the continent. According to him, all of them pointed to the fact that the bird was an abundant rains visitor for breeding purposes over a very large portion of India. But Whistler was candid about need for more detailed evidence. The records he had collected spanned many decades and were from different parts of the country.
Migrantwatch took up the challenge to test this scientifically and has been doing this since 2009 with the help several volunteers to collect data across India and the sightings from places to where the Pied Cuckoo migrates shows that it does, by-and-large, arrive in advance of the monsoon, but the exact dates are variable. It is been tabulated into Pied Cuckoo Campaign. You can checkout more details on their blog
In March and April, almost all sightings are from southern India, where the species is known to be resident year-round. This remains so until the middle of May. In the third week of May, the first migrant sightings appear, in the West and the North-east. As the monsoon hits the Andamans, the first birds in northern India are seen. More and more birds are subsequently seen across the West, North and East. By the time the monsoon reaches Kerala (in the first week of June), Pied Cuckoos are everywhere, except perhaps the extreme West and North-West.
The species is distributed south of the Sahara in Africa and south of the Himalayas in India. Also found in SriLanka and parts of Myanmar. Within Africa, there are movements of the species although they are resident in tropical Africa. The east African population is migratory and moves over southern Arabia into India during April. The habitat of the species is mainly in thorny, dry scrub or open woodland avoiding areas of dense forest or extremely dry environments.
In the breeding season, birds call from prominent perches and chase each other with slow wing-beats and pigeon like clapping flight. Courtship feeding has been observed in Africa. The species is a brood parasite and in India the host is mainly species of babblers in the genus Turdoides. The color of the eggs matches those of the host, typically turquoise blue. The eggs are slightly larger than those of the Common Babbler (Turdoides caudatus) or the Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata). Other hosts include the Red-vented Bulbul, and the eggs laid are then mostly white. Eggs are laid hurriedly in the morning into the nest of the host often dropped from while the bird perches on the rim of the nest and over the host eggs often resulting in the cracking of one or more host eggs.
The skin of young birds darkens form pink to purplish brown within two days of hatching. The mouth linking is red with yellow gape flanges. Unlike some cuckoos, nestlings do not evict the eggs of the host from the nest although they claim most of the parental attention and food resulting sometimes, in the starvation of host nestlings. These cuckoos feed on insects including hairy caterpillars that are picked up from near or on the ground. Caterpillars are pressed from end to end to remove the guts before they are swallowed. They sometimes feed on fruits.