Last night I settled into bed with my book around 9pm. I read for a while and just when I was dozing off I heard, or at least I though I heard, a loud shriek in the trees near our house. I was instantly awake, and waiting to make sure if I actually did hear something. It took a few minutes, but then another shriek and I was sure of it, the long-tailed cuckoo, Eudynamis taitensis, was nearby. Big deal you might say, but this cuckoo has a very interesting story. This bird, which is about the size and shape of a Cooper’s Hawk, spends the breeding season of October to February in New Zealand, and then the rest of the year on islands scattered across thousands of miles of South Pacific ocean. This one in my backyard will soon be taking off on a 4,000 kilometer (2,600 mile) flight across a huge expanse of open water.
Like many other species of cuckoo, E. taitensis is a brood parasite, in fact it is an inter-specific brood parasite. What this means is that the females lay their eggs in the nests of another bird species – in this case whitehead, yellowhead, and brown creepers. When the chicks hatch they mimic the other birds hungry chick sounds, and get fed and ultimately raised, by the host species parents. The cuckoo parents don’t need to do any nesting or any chick rearing. There is no waiting around for the kids to fledge and learn how to fly, no gentle encouragement out of the nest, and definitely no dealing with their offspring as adults. Once the breeding and egg laying is done, adult cuckoos are free to take off again for the islands, off to tropical edens full of tasty crickets, and centipedes, and geckos.
I like birding, but I rarely study bird books before I go someplace. So the first time I saw a cuckoo here I was very surprised. I was way down the eastern side of the island of Fakarava, rambling along a lagoon beach, when out of the corner of my eye I saw this weird bird fly from one bush to another. I say weird because from its body and wing shape the first thing I thought of was a roadrunner, but I had no idea there was anything like that here. I waited and stalked it a bit until it flew again, and then I knew I was right, but it wasn’t until later when I got back to my bird book did I make the exact identification. Since then I have seen them several times in the Tuamotu and heard them many times near my house on Moorea, always at night.
The Long-tailed Cuckoo (picture above is from www.teara.govt.nz) is native to these islands. It was migrating between New Zealand and the islands of the South Pacific before the Polynesians ever set a paddle in the Pacific. But as the Polynesians moved across the Pacific from west to east, settling islands along the way, they must have noticed the seasonal comings and goings of this bird. And the going part must have puzzled them. Where was this land bird going? This question was answered finally by the first Polynesians that sailed to New Zealand, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 AD. According to Maori tradition, this voyage was done by a guy named Kupe, who left from Raiatea in the Society Islands. As far as I know there is no mention of a cuckoo (or koekoea in Maori) associated with this legend, but I’m willing to bet that it was this bird, flying back to New Zealand every year for its short and sweet mating season, that first tipped the Polynesians off that there was land down there.
(NOTE: Tahiti Expeditions does in no way endorse or support parents ditching their kids to visit the islands. We suggest that, at least as long as they are still in the nest, you take them with you. Check out our website or contact us for some great trips for families.)