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Asian Koel: First recorded begging-call mimicry

on 18th October 2007

On 7th October 2007, Erik Mobrand wrote: “For the past few weeks we have had two noisy koels outside our window regularly. What is striking is that these individuals (a female and a male, perhaps juvenile) do not make the typical koel call. Instead, they have this hoarse squawk, which we hear many times during the day – not just at dawn and dusk, when we usually hear koels.

“What is going on? Do young koels try to imitate the House Crows they grew up with? The call has the same rhythm as the House Crow’s. I’ve seen these koels fighting with House Crows.”

We received two snapshots (below) and a video clip the next day and a note: “…We see this koel almost daily now out the window of our fourth floor flat. She sat in this tree calling on and on for perhaps two hours yesterday afternoon. A male making a similar call has also come by, though less frequently.”

Click on the link to view the video clip provided by Erik to hear the strange call: koel-clip.wmv

1117.jpg

The bird in the images above is a female Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea). And Asian Koels have a repertoire of different calls – at least seven loud calls have been reported. The usual call we hear in the mornings and evenings is the ascending loud ko-el-ko-el-ko-el-ko-el-ko-el-ko-el that begins slowly but may become faster with time. Then there is also the loud, harsh kroik-kroik-kroik. These are made by males and usually answered by other males that are around.

Click on the link provided to hear these calls, recorded by Sutari Supari and digitally processed by Wang Luan Keng: asian_koel.mp3

Wells (1999) describes an even-toned woik-woik-woik-woik that is made mainly at dusk, from roosting perches. This call sounds like what Erik recorded in the video. However, therecorded call was made during the afternoon, not at dusk.

Flying fledglings give a loud and harsh kaaa, rather like a young crow, when begging for food from its foster parents, the crows. So far, there is no evidence that juvenile koels imitate crows.

Until now!

Through Wang Luan Keng, the images and video clip from Erik were forwarded to Prof R B Payne, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, the world’s foremost authority on cuckoos. Back came the reply:

“Thanks for sending the cuckoo video. The clip looks like a grown fledgling koel, plumae black with some whitish or buff bands on tail and wing, white spots on the back, and the call is like the begging call of crows.

“The call is like the calls of adult house crows as in the Birds of the Western Palearctic vol 8, 1994, p148, where the description says “food calls of older young a strangled ‘rekk-keck, reckkeck‘” which sounds about right, and the calls of the adults are similar too, in time (0.3-0.8 sec), pitch and frequency envelope (broadband, most sound at 1-2 kHz).

“Other crows in BWP do have words and figures of begging calls of young and the calls of adults – carrion crow has food-begging call of incubating female where the audiospectrogram looks a lot like your koel, and the word description sounds about the same too.

“Some other cuckoos have begging calls a lot like the begging calls of their foster species – African striped cuckoo Clamator levaillantii is the best known.

“I don’t know that a begging-call mimicry has been described for koels – for koels in Australia they say a hand-reared koel at nine weeks old was “a loud, varied, continual dialogue of sharp trills and squeaks akin to ‘wheeet-oop-weeet-wheet-wheeet-op” occasionally interspersed with high pitched screeches. The paper doesn’t show an audiospectrogram of this young bird. – Maller, C. J. and Jones, D. N. (2001) Vocal behaviour of the Common Koel, Eudynamys scolopacea, and implications for mating systems. Emu 101: 105-112.”

Erik Mobrand & Prof RB Payne
Singapore
October 2007
(Images and video by Erik Mobrand)

References:
1. Payne, R.B. (1997). Family Cuculidae (cucoos). Pp.508-607 in: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Barcelona: Lynx Editions.
2. Wells, D.R. (1999). The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsular. Vol. I, Non-passerines. Academic Press, London.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

3 Responses

  1. I have become interested in many birds that frequent my backyard.

    Yesterday, I heard a frightened krik krik and looked out of my window to see a glossy black koel with red eyes and small hooked beak sitting in the lower branches of the small lemon tree. It looked like it wanted to hide. The crows were flying about and cawing loudly and finally one swooped down and this fellow flew away rather quickly. Again today morning the whole show was repeated. We managed to get quite a few good pics of the koel. I think it was young koel because it’s mouth was rather pink when it opened it to chew something. I am loving the whole drama of the interaction between various species.

    A few months I was witness to a rather entertaining fight between several mynah birds. It was exactly like watching street goons fighting at a local watering hole with a lot of head dipping and loud noises. A frightened little squirrel was caught in the middle of the whole show.

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