Why do birds sing? The shining cuckoo and the grey warbler

Over spring, and now into summer, Nate has been fascinated by the innovative, yet pushy antics of the shining cuckoo (pipiwharauroa).

He wanted to know why birds sing, and we talked all about communication and the kinds of things that birds would need to say to one another, revolving around territory, reproduction, and migration.

I’m over here! Where are you?

Here I am! Is anybody else around?

Ahem! It’s ‘business time!’ (if you don’t know what I’m talking about here, see the link to the Flight of the Conchords at the bottom of this post…)

It’s getting a bit cold, don’t you reckon? Shall we wing it outta here?


Consequently I was perusing the shelves at Auckland’s Children’s Bookshop and came across a beautifully illustrated new release, ‘The Cuckoo and the Warbler’ by Heather Hunt and Kennedy Warne. It has become Nate’s new favourite book, and now he understands that the complexities of bird life really do require a bit of communication!

The relationship between pipiwharauroa and riroriro (the grey warbler) is totally unique. As two birds go, they really couldn’t be any more different – one flies thousands of miles in its lifetime, migrating from the Solomon Islands to New Zealand and back every year; and the other keeps put in a territory of perhaps five kilometres max.

Every spring, the tiny little grey warbler cheeps, chatters, and flits to finds a mate, industriously building a nest for its four or five wee eggs. Then the shining cuckoo arrives on the scene, toodling away to anyone who’ll listen about how international it is, and how cleverly it has just migrated from an island group near the equator. It too will mate, but it doesn’t bother building its own nest, oh no. What a boring waste of time, darling, tweetle tweetle.

Cheeky pipiwharauroa finds the warbler’s globe-like nest and forces its considerable feathery self into the tiny opening. Sometimes it gets stuck in the process, and the riroriro will chirp alarm bells as loudly as its tiny lungs will allow, summoning up other warblers to help expel the intruder. The cuckoo can be jammed in there with its bum in the air, getting dive bombed by tiny little warblers, all ineffectually pecking it to try and put it off. But it’s futile. Home invasion is complete.

The cuckoo lays its own egg in the nest, and then happily flies off to party with the other cuckoos, free of all responsibility, job done. At the beginning of summer, the air is full of the song of smug, self satisfied pipiwharauroa – and there seem to be tons of them around our place!

If the mother cuckoo hasn’t already pushed out all the little warbler eggs, once the cuckoo hatchling emerges from its gigantic egg, it will eject all the other eggs or warbler babies from the nest, then sit there with its beak open squawking for food. The dozy warbler parents will flap about like mad finding enough lunch to satisfy ‘their darling’ not noticing that it has quickly become twice their size!

Once fully grown, in autumn the young pipiwharauroa sing out to gather forces and fly all the way back up to the equator, miraculously returning to their parents winter home. That’s why birds sing, I told Nate. How else do they know where to go, and when?

Just like when you tell me what to do, Mummy, he said. Ha ha.

You can listen to pipiwharauroa here

Flight of the Conchords Business Time  (this is compulsory viewing if you haven’t seen/heard it, but perhaps not for the kids!!)

The Cuckoo and the Warbler book



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