A Cuckoo-Starling Affair, by ranger Michael Lentz

On Tuesday 11 February 2014, while out on game drive, we found this juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo on the Marthly region of MalaMala. It was perched perfectly on a dead tree, and making a highly stressed sound. What we didn’t expect was for the cuckoo’s host to make an appearance, and leave us with an experience that won’t be easily forgotten.

A Burchell’s Starling arrived, and it immediately became apparent why the cuckoo was vocalising. It was hungry and begging for food from its host! Despite the well-known fact that cuckoos are brood parasites (they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species), it’s very seldom that one gets to watch the interaction between them and their surrogate hosts. Furthermore, the Burchell’s Starling is not a very popular brood host, with the Pied Starling, Cape Starling and Lesser Starling being better options.

The above image is of the cuckoo being fed a termite from the starling. While this was fascinating to watch, we could hardly believe what happened next!

The obviously still-hungry cuckoo made a lunge for the starling, attempting to bite the host bird! This sight was a first for us, and we all agreed that it could not have taken place in a better location, especially with the clear blue sky on that particular morning.

Considering the Burchell’s Starling is not a very common host species for the Great Spotted Cuckoo, we were reminded of how opportune this chance encounter was. Summer intra-African migrants such as the Great Spotted Cuckoo often get overlooked, but this was definitely not the case on this particular game drive!

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