The Chestnut-bellied Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus sumatranus) builds its nest in trees. Made of twigs lodged between the forks of branches, the nest is neatly lined with green leaves (left). In it the female lays two white, glossless eggs.
This malkoha is a cuckoo, but unlike most cuckoos from this region, it actually builds its own nest and takes care of its young.
Cuckoos (Family Cuculidae) are notorious for taking advantage of other bird species to look after their young – from nest building to egg incubation to chick rearing. This is what ornithologists call brood or nest parasitism. One common brood parasite many birders are familiar with is the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) that in Singapore makes use of the House Crow (Corvus splendens) to rear its young.
In freeing itself from the hard work of rearing its young, the bird has more time to concentrate on propagating the species.
However, despite the label of being brood parasites, many species of cuckoos actually build their own nests and raise their own young. There are also cases of these cuckoos sometimes laying their eggs in the nest of a nearby pair of the same species or of another species.
(Images from “A Passion for Birds” courtesy of Ong Kiem Sian)
Did you know that the name ‘Malkoha’ is of Sri Lankan and more specifically Sinhalese origin? Mal means ‘Flower’. ‘Koha’ is the local Sinhalese name for Asian Koel. ‘Mal’ is sort of similar to the epithet ‘Painted’ used in English bird names; referring mostly to birds that bear colourful plumage features.
Jeon Gideon Loten, Dutch govenor in Maritime provinces in Sri Lanka from 1752-1757 was the first person to make a serious study of birds in Sri Lanka. He collected birds and noted their weights, dimensions and local names. He then got a local artist of European descent named Pieter Cornelis de Bevere to illustrate these collections. After his term, Loten settled in England in 1758 where he married an English lady and lived much of his life. Here, Loten presented his collections, notes & paintings to the British Museum. European naturalists started formally describing the birds based on de Bevere’s paintings and copies made of them by European artists, which were to become ‘iconotypes’ for the lack of/poor state of actual specimens for most. One such bird described in Thomas Pennant’s Indian Zoology in 1781 was one bird of which the local Sinhalese name was ‘Malkoha’. This was given the Latin binomial Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus – the enigmatic Sri Lankan endemic; Red-faced Malkoha. This was the first of its genus to be described and all other Phaenicophaeus species described subsequently were given the name ‘Malkoha’ as their generic English name.
First we look at birds. Then we study their behaviour. Now we look at the history behind their names. How fascinating birding can be… Thanks Amila for introducing another aspect of birding.