The pheasant coucal is proof that Australia has the best birds


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 5 March 2018
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If you haven’t been introduced to the pheasant coucal, prepare yourselves, because some of you will be coming out of this with a new favourite bird.

LET’S NOT EVEN talk about how it looks like a medieval war bird, ready to strike some rebels, or a dinosaur that walked straight out of the Cretaceous and into the present day, just so it could eyeball us all to death.

We don’t need to convince you that this is clearly one of the coolest looking birds in Australia. But there’s another reason why the pheasant coucal (Centropus phasianinus) is worth a closer look.

Not only is it one of the largest cuckoo species in the country, but unlike most cuckoo birds, the pheasant coucal actually takes its parenting very seriously.

In fact, it’s the only known Australian cuckoo that lays its eggs in its own nest – not someone else’s.

Better down below

Found in northern and eastern Australia and the Torres Strait islands, the pheasant coucal’s range extends from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, all the way over to the south-eastern coast of New South Wales. It’s also found in Timor and east and southeast New Guinea.

With a particular attraction to the canefields of northern Australia, and our tropical and subtropical forests and mangroves, the pheasant coucal is one of the few cuckoo species that lives its entire life on the ground, feeding on large insects, frogs, lizards, eggs, and whatever tiny birds and mammals it can get its claws on.

That’s actually where it gets its name from – being large and heavyset, with black, white, and golden markings along its wings and tail feathers, it looks just like a pheasant, running through the undergrowth.

It even startles like a pheasant – if it feels threatened, the pheasant coucal is much more likely to run for cover, because if it opts for flight, it’s going to have to settle for a really clumsy exit.

But at least it looks good doing it at the right moment:


(Image Credit: Krystal Huff, Territory Wildlife Park)

Family fouls

Cuckoos are notorious in the bird world for being shameless parasites – they’ll lay their eggs in another bird’s nest… while the other bird is sitting right there.

It’s a brilliant tactic, because the cuckoos get some other bird to spend its time and resources rearing its offspring.

For whatever reason, pheasant cuckoos opted out of that particular evolutionary path, and are the only cuckoos in the country to look after their own young.

They take great care in constructing their nests, using long and flexible stalks of grass and various stems to weave together a kind of open-ended dome on the ground.

Once the eggs are lain under the curved structure, the parents will line the floor of the nest with fresh green leaves for added softness.

The males get the brunt of the babysitting duties, because they’re the ones that end up doing most of the feeding and incubating, with the females left free to forage as she likes.

And let’s just take a moment to appreciate pheasant coucal chicks, because look at this tiny alien baby and its weird, downy hat:

Image alt text

(Image Credit: Ian Sutton/Flickr)

Seriously, these things look like actual rambutans.

It’s hard to look at something so goofy, and remember that it’s going to grow up and look this fierce:


(Image Credit: Krystal Huff, Territory Wildlife Park)

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