The Foster Chick

Parenting in the animal kingdom is a behaviour that has evolved immensely over the millennia, since sexual reproduction has evolved. From the simple invertebrates – which till date show no parental care at all, to highly evolved mammals – in whom a young one is taken care of for several years, parenting in the animal kingdom has come a long way. Parental care ensures a higher chance of an offspring surviving to adulthood while spending minimal energy on reproduction.

Common Hawk Cuckoo juve 3
A juvenile of a Common Hawk Cuckoo.

But some animals have cunningly developed a strategy to escape the time and energy needed in parenting, while still ensuring that their offspring has a good chance of surviving. One such popular example is that of a cuckoo. It is a well-known fact that several species of cuckoos are brood parasites, i.e. they lay eggs in the nests of other birds and let them raise their young ones. The Common Hawk Cuckoo (Hierococcyx varius) is no exception to this rule.

Common Hawk Cuckoo juve 6
Flickering of wings is a popular method to beg for food from parents in several species of birds.
Common Hawk Cuckoo juve 7
The single note call made by the juvenile Common Hawk Cuckoo to beg for food is quite similar to that of Jungle Babbler call.

The Common Hawk Cuckoo is one of the most frequently encountered cuckoos in Kanha. Its incessant calls during the breeding season, which comes at the start of the Indian summer, are difficult to miss. The high-pitched calls are rendered as ‘brain fever’, and its habit of calling at odd hours, including during the afternoon and in the middle of the night, seems to indicate that the bird is suffering from the suggested mental disorder.

Jungle Babbler
One of the foster parents, a Jungle Babbler, foraging for insects on the forest floor.

The breeding season of the cuckoo coincides with the breeding season of some of the babblers of Kanha, which are the unfortunate hosts for this brood parasite. The diabolical cuckoo chick gets rid of the babbler eggs or young ones in its nest, so the foster parents have only one young one to care of. The cuckoo chick, despite looking very different from the babblers, is nurtured by the foster parents until it is ready to fend for itself.

Jungle Babbler feeding Common Hawk Cuckoo juve
The much smaller foster parent – a Jungle Babbler, feeding its much larger foster child – a juvenile Common Hawk Cuckoo.

We had the opportunity to see one such young one being cared for by a flock of Jungle Babblers (Turdoides striatus) recently in the Singinawa Jungle Lodge premises. What amazed us most was the sound that the young cuckoo used to make while following the babblers. If you did not care to look in the direction from where the single-note call came, you would simply dismiss it be a sound created by the babbler. The cuckoo was almost ready to be weaned. This we could tell because although it was frequently fed by the babblers, the juvenile cuckoo would occasionally pick insects up from the ground by itself.

Common Hawk Cuckoo juve 2
Occasionally when the juvenile cuckoo was not fed by the babblers, it managed to pick up insects by itself – a sign that the young one was close to being weaned.

The foster parenting lessons went on for about a month. Since then, we still encounter the babbler flock in the area, but now sans their foster child. The cuckoo, now independent, may return next year to lay its own egg in the babbler’s nest, thus tormenting its foster parents even after having left them long ago.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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