Sat, Nov 19, 2016 - Page 9 News List

With a cuckoo’s journey from China,
a mystery is solved and cheers go up

Scientists and birdwatchers were astonished to find out that small cuckoos that weigh no more than 100g were able to fly across the Indian Ocean into Africa

By Chris Buckley  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Illustration: Tania Chou

When “Flappy McFlapperson” and “Skybomb Bolt” sprang into the sky for their annual migration from wetlands near Beijing, nobody was sure where the two cuckoos were going. They and three other cuckoos had been tagged with sensors to follow them from northern China.

The question is, to where?

“These birds are not known to be great fliers,” said Terry Townshend, a British amateur birdwatcher living in the Chinese capital who helped organize the Beijing Cuckoo Project to track the birds.

“Migration is incredibly perilous for birds and many perish on these journeys,” Townshend said.

The answer to the mystery — unfolding in passages recorded by satellite for more than five months — has been a humbling revelation even to many experts. The birds’ journeys have so far covered thousands of kilometers, across a total of a dozen countries and an ocean.

The “common cuckoo,” as the species is called, turns out to be capable of exhilarating odysseys.

“It’s impossible not to feel an emotional response,” said Chris Hewson, an ecologist with the British Trust for Ornithology in Thetford, England, who has helped run the tracking project. “There’s something special about feeling connected to one small bird flying across the ocean or desert.”

However, to follow a cuckoo, you must first seduce it.

The common cuckoo is by reputation a cynical freeloader.

Mothers outsource parenting by laying their eggs in the nests of smaller birds, and the birds live on grubs, caterpillars and similar soft morsels.

British and Chinese bird groups decided to study two cuckoo subspecies found near Beijing, because their winter getaways were a puzzle. In an online poll for the project, about half the respondents guessed they went somewhere in Southeast Asia.

“We really didn’t know for sure,” said Yu Fang (于方), a coffee importer, a prominent member of the Beijing birdwatching community and a volunteer on the project.

“We knew that the cuckoos breed around here, but where do they go over winter? I guessed it was India,” Yu said. “I’ve been birdwatching in India, and they are often spotted there. I thought that’s where they stopped.”

To tag the birds, the team set up soft, barely visible nets in May to safely catch them. A stuffed female cuckoo was attached to a tree or bush and a recording of the bird’s come-hither mating call was played out.

They responded lustily.

“The male cuckoos just can’t resist. They come in from a long way,” said Townshend, who works as a consultant on a variety of environmental projects.

Unexpectedly, female cuckoos also came to the party, seemingly jealous about an apparent rival in their patch, he said.

After excluding birds too light to safely carry the sensors, the team attached solar-powered tags weighing 4.5g to the backs of five birds, each weighing about 100g, and freed them into the wild, where satellites followed the signals from their tags. Such technology has revolutionized the study of migratory birds since the 1990s.

“Tracking technology has ushered in a new age of exploration,” Hewson said.

However, the project was also intended to raise awareness of wild birds and their needs, especially in China, where expanding cities, pollution and commercial capture with huge nets threaten the creatures. Schools in Beijing for local and foreign children gave the birds their names.

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