Burchell’s starlings foster great spotted cuckoo chicks

Sabi Sand | April 2019

The Cuculidae family consists of thirteen cuckoo species that can be observed in the southern African region. These birds are renowned for not taking any parental care rearing their chicks, after laying their eggs in a host specie’s nest! Evolutionary, this is exceptionally cunning behaviour that is known but not easily observed in the natural environment!

I received a call over the radio from a fellow field guide that had discovered a pair of Burchell’s starlings hard at work looking for food for their two foster great spotted cuckoo chicks! Having never seen this behaviour before, I informed my guests of the uniqueness of this sighting and they were equally excited to find the birds.
Arriving on the eastern side of Castle Dam, we scanned all the large leadwood and jackalberry trees but there was no sign of the birds. After a few minutes I heard what I recognised as the call of the chicks and we drove to where I thought they might be. The starling first appeared in a magic guarri bush and then one of the cuckoos landed on the ground next to it.

The cuckoo was then approached by the starling, landing right beside it, and this is when the cuckoo started chirping and vigorously harassing the starling for the bug that it had in its beak. After a few seconds, the starling and both cuckoos flew into a tree and were grovelling for food. The ‘mother’ took off and continued her search for more food for the domineeringly hungry chicks!

When witnessing this behaviour, only one chick is usually observed following their foster parent around. However, seeing two chicks is more common in this species of cuckoo.

It may not be a Big 5 sighting, but it was great to see our guests equally passionate about a very unusual spectacle!