One of my favourite collective nouns in English is “murder” – as in a murder of crows. As far as I know, there isn’t a collective noun for cuckoos, perhaps because in Britain the cuckoo is mostly solitary. Here, however, a collective noun is not inappropriate for its cousin, the Channel-bill cuckoo, as this bird often travels in groups of 2 to 5.
In Europe, the male cuckoo’s call is welcomed as a harbinger of spring. In Sydney, the call of the Channel-billed cuckoo is also a harbinger of spring, but not a very attractive one. Graham Pizzey’s description is apt – ‘Voice: Awful – a raucous deliberately-spaced shout of “oik”, “awk” or “wark”, repeated .... often at night’. Unfortunately there are plenty of fig trees around our house, so we hear their ‘awful’ voices day and night at this time of year.
My choice therefore for a collective noun is a “cacophony” of cuckoos. (It could also be applied to cockatoos and perhaps kookaburras, but that’s for another discussion.)
Channel-billed cuckoos don’t look so pretty either. They have a zombie-like colouring – ash-grey plumage with red-rimmed eyes - and a heavy, grooved beak, as you can see:
Otherwise the Channel-bill’s appearance is not so bad - their feathers extend quite a way down their legs, like little grey pantaloons, and their tail is handsomely barred on the underside.
The immature birds have quite a lot of tawny colouring, like this one, and no red eye.
The cuckoos’ cacophony is often added to by other birds such as noisy miners, which mob the cuckoos when they have no cats to harass.
Currawongs and magpies will also attack the Channel-bills – justifiably as the cuckoos parasitise them. This currawong was furiously defending its nest, though the two cuckoos didn’t seem unduly perturbed by it.
Channel-bills are migratory, usually wintering in PNG and Indonesia. In my experience they used to be rare in my part of Sydney, but are now regularly seen (and heard!) every summer. My guess is that this has happened as a response to increasing numbers of currawongs, but more about that - and the currawong pictured above – another time.