For me it has never been the first ’swallow’ that heralds the start of spring down here in the Western Cape. It has always been the repetitive and plaintive ‘mietjie-mietjie’ call of the Klaas’s Cuckoo delivered in a monotonous sequence from the very top of the highest tree available within its chosen territory for the forthcoming breeding season.

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Kruger Birding Tour

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Jacobin Cuckoo, Kruger Birding, South AfricaJacobin Cuckoo
Diderick Cuckoo, Kruger Birding, South AfricaDiderick Cuckoo
Red-chested Cuckoo, Summer birding in South AfricaRed-chested Cuckoo
Klaas's Cuckoo, Immature, Summer birding tour in South AfricaImmature Klaas’s Cuckoo



Slightly later as spring unfolds towards summer, the loud, strident calls of the Red-chested Cuckoo, with its pulsating ‘quid pro quo’ call, ring out with musical clarity across the more well-wooded suburbs with Kirstenbosch and Harold Porter Botanical Gardens being perennial favourites for these charismatic cuckoos.

Yes, as SA birders we are fortunate to have 17 cuckoo species within our sub-region out of the 23 species recorded for Africa. An abundance of choice compared to only the Grey (Common) Cuckoo of Europe with its characteristic call of cuckoo clock fame and fable.

Within the iridescent  collective the three emerald-backed smaller cuckoos are the most striking and usually the most conspicuous, particularly the highly vocal Diederic Cuckoo,  as competing males orbit and call in ‘dee-dee-dideric’ mode around weaver colonies with parasitic intent.

Klaas’s Cuckoo tends to escape notice unless calling, while the highly vocal Emerald Cuckoo with its ‘Pretty Georgie’ call is synonymous with the indigenous forests of the Garden Route and northwards along the Drakensberg foothills. Both species have a preference for favoured call sites making visual location occasionally possible, albeit frustratingly time consuming in the case of the Emerald Cuckoo, as one diligently sifts through the forest canopy in the hope of a clear view…

But for me it is heading north of the Western Cape to the rolling savannah of mixed acacia and broad-leafed woodland of the Kruger Park in October/November that holds the greatest appeal as the wave of intra- African migrants arrive in large numbers following the start of the summer rains.

This is the best time to look for the larger cuckoos as they career about in swift and dashing flight in pursuit of one another between bouts of repetitive calling from favoured call sites. It is an exciting birding time as these small, raptor-like and highly charismatic cuckoos liven up the bushveld scene with their loud, ringing courtship calls or far carrying penetrative phrases.

While the Black Cuckoo lapses into mournful and repetitive call mode with an occasional bout of ‘whirling’, others such as the hyper-active ‘black and white’ Jacobin and Le Vaillant’s (Striped) Cuckoos with distinctive crests and similar sounding strident calls are the most conspicuous and vocally entertaining.

African Cuckoo, Summer birding tour in South AfricaAfrican Cuckoo

Add to this the small goshawk- like appearance of the African Cuckoo as this normally shy and retiring cuckoo slips silently out of concealment to zig-zag away through the woodland in rapid flight or on occasion presents itself  for a clear sighting as it ‘hoop-hoops’ in African Hoopoe mode soon after arrival.

Thick-billed Cuckoo, Summer birding tour in South AfricaThick-billed Cuckoo

Then there is the highly secretive and easily overlooked Thick-billed Cuckoo of moister woodland with its high pitched ‘weee-we-wick’ Klaas’s Cuckoo type call that has become the ‘Holy Grail’ for many a frustrated birder trying to track down this elusive species for their ‘life list’ in habitats where the host species, the Retz’s Helmet Shrike, is known to occur.

For me the Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo of the low altitude forests of Zimbabwe has the most enthralling and captivating call as it picks up in crescendo and pitch before breaking into a descending series of evenly paced Red-chested Cuckoo ‘quid pro quo’ notes to complete the call sequence.

Finally, by far my favourite local cuckoo in overall terms is the not-so-frequently encountered Great Spotted Cuckoo of which two races are known to occur in the savannas of Southern Africa. One is a nonbreeding visitor from north of the equator and the other an intra- African breeding migrant Clamator glandarius choragium which targets starlings and crows as preferred host species.

Great to look at and highly charismatic in courtship behaviour, they fly about in highly vocal display or forage in closely bonded pairs at the start of the breeding season, before fading into concealment and complete silence in keeping with the rest of the cuckoo family once the breeding cycle is over.

PJC/AvianLeisure/ 06/02/12









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *