Long-tailed Cuckoos

by Craig Robertson
Publish date
31 October 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

October is an important time of year for bird migration. In the southern hemisphere birds head for their summer breeding grounds. Most species of cuckoo are migratory and the Long-tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamys taitensis) is the greatest traveller of the southern hemisphere cuckoos. It is added to the Australian list owing to its seasonal presence on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. Museum Victoria has several specimens of this species, mostly from New Zealand.

Long-tailed Cuckoo skins in their drawer. Long-tailed Cuckoo skins in their drawer.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria

Some of the specimens are over a hundred years old. Not unusually one of the skins is from John Gould, acquired around 1860, another from James Cockerell, a pioneering nineteenth century collector who gained his specimen in the Solomon Islands in 1879; others are of more recent origin. They almost radiate with a sense of history, and perhaps some mystery too.

Long-tailed Cuckoos spend the winter months in the more tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean, mainly in Polynesia. Their spring migration takes them to New Zealand and its surrounding islands. From French Polynesia, the islands around Tahiti, the distance is over 3000 kilometres, a route over open ocean. It is in this group that it is thought the New Zealand Maoris had their ancestral home, the paradisiacal land of Hawaiki.

Some students of Polynesian voyaging have theorised that the original discovery of New Zealand was made by following cuckoo migration. But it is a controversial idea. Maori mythology is replete with stories of ancestral voyaging. The mythology also acknowledges the existence and character of the Long-tailed Cuckoo, 'a lazy parent'. But there does not appear to be any definitive link between them and the voyaging.

Nevertheless, it is a persuasive idea. Long-tailed cuckoos are land birds. Individual Pacific Islands hold relatively few bird species, especially land birds. However unpopulated New Zealand was heavily forested, with a bountiful range of host species which cuckoos could parasitise; the result – lots of cuckoos. Their presence and movements in the islands would have been prominent. Also they migrate over a period of two or three weeks, usually in October. They fly day and night, low over the ocean, calling loudly to each other as they go in a way that can be heard on the water in the dark.

A remarkable Australian, Harold Gatty, was probably the most prominent proponent of the bird migration theory. As a young man he had gained a thorough knowledge of navigation. He emigrated to the United States and rose to fame in 1931 as the navigator on a historic flight around the world in eight days. Along with the pilot, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York and a medal by President Herbert Hoover. Later he served with Macarthur's headquarters in the South Pacific.

In 1943 Gatty published The Raft Book, a survival guide for airmen at sea. It was standard issue in the life rafts aboard all Allied aircraft in the Pacific. The book includes Gatty's ideas about how to navigate using the techniques of 'the greatest pathfinders in history', the Polynesians. As Gatty says, they understood bird migration long before Europeans, understood there was land where the birds were seen to go to, and then return from. They were an adventurous people and brave sailors in canoes that they said 'dared the clouds of heaven'.

Just imagine you are far out from any known land at night, the infinite starry sky above and a seemingly infinite world of water around you, your next landfall an unknown distance away -and nothing but a bunch of cuckoos to guide you on your way. Brave sailors indeed.

Two Long-tailed Cuckoo specimens Two Long-tailed Cuckoo specimens mounted for exhibition.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria

Whatever the truth about Maori migration, it is certain that the adult birds in the Museum Victoria collection would have made great voyages across the South Pacific. There is a Long-tailed Cuckoo in the Amazing Animals of Australasia, Oceania and Antarctica in Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world.

Further reading:

Harold Gatty, Nature is Your Guide: how to find your way on land and sea, Collins, London, 1958

David Lewis, We, the Navigators: the ancient art of landfinding in the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra, 1972

For the sceptical view:

Andrew Sharp Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963

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