Home Invader
African Birdlife|May/June 2021
Diederik Cuckoo
Derek Keats

The loud, unmistakable ‘deed-deed-deed-deed-er-ick’ call of the male Diederik Cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius is a characteristic sound of southern Africa’s spring and summer landscape. Indeed, so distinctive is the call that the species’ common name is taken from it. The bird’s scientific species name, caprius, is thought to be a misprint of either cuprea (coppery) or capensis (from the Cape).

An intra-African migrant that follows the rains, the Diederik Cuckoo arrives in the subregion in September and October, possibly to coincide with the breeding season of its hosts. It belongs to the Cuculidae and, like many other members of that family, it’s a brood parasite, laying its egg in the nest of another species for the chick to be raised by the host until it can fend for itself.

Male and female Diederik Cuckoos differ in appearance, the males being more brightly coloured and having more distinct markings whereas the females are plainer and less conspicuous – although still with a certain beauty of their own. While a female will defend a territory within a colony of potential hosts, the males range across such territories, each one competing with other males for breeding access to the occupying female and attempting to convince the female that he is a suitable mate.

Darwin described a mode of natural selection that he called sexual selection, where typically members of one sex choose mates of the other sex with whom to mate (sexual selection by mate choice). It is usually the female who makes the decision to mate and this is referred to as sexual selection by female choice. In the case of the Diederik Cuckoo, sexual selection by female choice is probably why males are more gaudy and why they engage in ritual display flights and feeding behaviour to impress a potential mate. Yet sexual selection alone may not be the only selection pressure leading to dimorphism in cuckoos: recent studies have shown that female plumage became more cryptic with the evolution of brood parasitism. Female Diederik Cuckoos are still relatively colourful, so we can’t be sure to what extent that generalisation applies to this particular species.

The rituals associated with breeding are quite elaborate, involving display flights, calling signals to other males and females and pre- and post-copulation feeding. After sighting a female, a male will court her with song and aerial displays and eventually begin the feeding ritual by bringing her a caterpillar. The two birds engage in a vigorous dance of bobbing up and down with wings partially spread. If the female is amenable, the male passes the caterpillar to her and for a period of several seconds each bird holds one end of the offering. The male then lets go and may fly off to find another caterpillar.

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