End of the Koel Saga

To: 'John Harris' <>, 'Canberra Birds' <>
Subject: End of the Koel Saga
From: Philip Veerman <>
Date: Sat, 29 Feb 2020 07:56:10 +0000

Hi John,


Sure interesting ideas and also Jack Holland’s input is very useful. I will add some ideas to both. There are occasional observations of parasitic cuckoos of various species feeding fledgling cuckoos of their own species. Even though the parasitic habit is complex, maybe they still retain some of the basic instinct of a bird to stuff food into a big bright mouth, just enough to show the behaviour occasionally. Although that is when the birds are still very young and not ready to migrate.  Some cuckoos are not parasitic, so the child raising instinct is in there somewhere not all that far back in history. It is no surprise that the Red Wattlebird pair continue aggression towards the adult Koels. It is one of the weird things that they recognise adults as a threat and yet still tend to fledged young that look by then really quite similar. In the meantime in your story it would be easy that the adult Koel would be attracted to the same food source as the young bird was. Is there any meaningful interaction between the adult Koel and the young one? Hard to know. For me right now, I doubt it. There could be mutual curiosity: “What the hell is that!?” Maybe I should make some noise. That is the thought if any, that I would expect, even if anthropomorphic. By analogy, in mound building birds where the parents display great devotion to the mound, they have absolutely no recognition of any chick that emerges, they are just kicked out of the way. I would be surprised if the adult Koel has any role in guiding the migration of the young one. I am willing to be surprised. In most migrating birds young don’t follow parents in particular, though there will of course be many that do. Apart from those that clearly do fly together, proving it either way is difficult. In the Channel-billed Cuckoo they sometimes migrate as flocks but for other cuckoos has anyone ever seen them migrating as family groups? I have not ever and suspect if so that it would be odd.


As for imprinting, that is maybe the wrong word or if we use the word, it is a special different case. If cuckoos get imprinted in the way other birds do, then they would direct their sexual behaviour towards their hosts, which clearly would be a mistake. However can it be that they get imprinted on the species that raised them to prefer them as hosts when they breed? That would appear to me to be likely. This is why I raised the issue of the Regent Honeyeater host of the Pallid Cuckoo a few weeks back, as I was concerned this could be a problem, but the response I got was that this was a rare event.


About imprinting, it depends if there is any learned component in the vocalisation of these birds. On what possible basis would the baby Koel know to imprint on an adult Koel, which for the most part will not be present (having long gone) but in rare cases such as yours where there happens to be a nice plum tree, will be there. That makes no sense to me. That it clearly does not occur in any other cuckoo that stops calling before then, as jack mentioned, makes me think it is even less likely. The situation (lots of fruit trees to keep the birds nearby) in Canberra is also surely unusual and recent.


The gesture of Wildcare  released the juvenile Koel at my place sounds nice as a thing to do. Has this been done before? Is there more evidence about what happens? I am curious. Did it have any practical value as distinct from releasing anywhere else where it could get a feed? I very much doubt that it had any real benefit to either bird and may I reckon more likely have caused distress to both, by being near each other for a time. Again I am willing to be surprised. I doubt if anyone knows the answers to these questions yet.





From: John Harris [
Sent: Saturday, 29 February, 2020 4:12 PM
To: Philip Veerman; 'Canberra Birds'
Subject: Re: [canberrabirds] End of the Koel Saga


My recent Koel experience has made me very curious about the possibility of adut Koels mentoring juveniles. I am of course far from the first to observe such an interaction and there are suggestions that adults may be imprinting their call or even preparing to lead the young birds on their northern migration. I should perhaps record exactly what I observed.

When I first reported the commotion in my plum tree, the male Koel was staying so close to the begging juvenile that I was briefly tempted to wonder if he was actually feeding it. After more careful observation over a few days, I saw the Red Wattlebird pair feeding the young Koel. At the same time they kept trying to drive the adult Koel away. That is obviously a very strong instinct in Wattlebirds.

This aggression was the source of the commotion together with curious random birds coming to watch including Currawongs wondering if there was anything to predate.

The Wattlebirds succeeded eventually in driving the male Koel further away although he was reluctant, at first  returning to the plum tree. He eventually gave in and hid himself quietly in a nearby tree. I could always locate him but only because I knew he was there hiding himself. He made no sound.

I saw the juvenile begin to take fruit for itself. The Wattlebirds very soon stopped feeding it although it continued to beg. The Wattlebirds, however, then left and abandoned the young Koel to fend for itself. The male remained nearby and began to call its wirra wirra now that it was no longer wary of revealing its presence and drawing the aggression of the Wattlebirds. The juvenile sometimes roosted in the tree where the adult was and returned to the plum tree. 

It was at about this stage that Wildcare  released the juvenile Koel at my place. For about another 10 days, the male continued to call wirra wirra and I saw a juvenile Koel several times but I do not know which one I was observing becauseI did not see both at once.

I heard the last wirra wirra about a week ago. I presume them to have migrated north although it is also true that the plums have finished.

Are they together?



Rev Dr John Harris,

36 Kangaroo Close,

Nicholls, ACT 2913


P: 61-(0)2-62418472


From: Philip Veerman <>
Sent: Friday, February 28, 2020 9:59:38 PM
To: 'Canberra Birds' <>
Subject: RE: [canberrabirds] End of the Koel Saga


It would indeed be interesting to know if adult Koels have a role in guiding or accompanying young birds on their first migration, their own young or even unrelated ones. Given that they have no role in raising them (but it seems they stay in the vicinity), it is a tantalising and curious concept.




From: Denise Kay [
Sent: Friday, 28 February, 2020 7:56 PM
To: John Harris
Cc: Canberra Birds
Subject: Re: [canberrabirds] End of the Koel Saga


Wildcare have done a great job as usual , its not an easy job raising a Koel chick 


On 28 Feb 2020, at 4:53 pm, John Harris <> wrote:


The dramatic  saga of the juvenile Koel in my plum tree and the attending male waiting to guide its northward flight has a (sort of) happy ending.

People from Wildcare Queanbeyan read my posts. They had a rescued juvenile Koel which was ready to be released. When they read of ‘my’ juvenile Koel , that there was plenty of food here, and that he had a guide waiting for him, they contacted me and came and released it in my yard.

I cannot honestly say that I saw the released bird after that. I saw and heard a juvenile Koel for about a week after that but do not know which one I was hearing or if it was both. I stopped hearing the juvenile calls about a week ago, only the male wirra wirra.

I have seen or heard nothing for a week now. I presume they are on their journey north. I hope they make it.




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