South Africa's “Rainbird” - the lovely but nasty Burchell's Coucal the bird that predicts the rain

The Burchell's Coucal outside our bedroom window. Photo by Catherine McGregor
The Burchell's Coucal outside our bedroom window. Photo by Catherine McGregor

Shy visitors

“Suddenly a bird's notes floated up to me from the bush that lined a stream at the foot of the hill on which the mission house stood: 'Boo-o-o, boo-boo-boo-boo-boo'. Clear and flute-like came the call. Beginning on a high, long-drawn note, it descended the scale rapidly, then rose again to a point near the beginning. Had the great god Pan come from Arcadia to blow his pipes among these African reeds? It was like the sound of water bubbling from some cool spring hidden deep in the bush. Further down the river another bird answered immediately. A third chimed in from a spot midway between the two, the a other and another, till the valley became a veritable orchestra of joyous sound.” - From Dr Basil Holt's Where Rainbirds Call (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1972).

During the past few days I have been delighted to hear what South African poet Douglas Livingstone called “the rainbird's liquid note” from the trees between our house and the next door neighbour's. It is the lovely call of the Burchell's Coucal (Centropus superciliosus), colloquially known as the rainbird, because it seems to call most often in periods of high humidity, leading to the belief that it foretells rain.

This bird is a shy but beautiful one, with lovely chestnut-brown back and wing feathers and a long, floppy tail with some marked bands in its upper parts. It does come into suburban gardens but tends not to show itself too readily.

Photo by Catherine McGregor
Photo by Catherine McGregor
Photo by Catherine McGregor
Photo by Catherine McGregor
Burchell's Coucal distribution map from Kenneth Newman: "Birds of Southern Africa" Sappi/Struik 2002
Burchell's Coucal distribution map from Kenneth Newman: "Birds of Southern Africa" Sappi/Struik 2002

Voracious eaters

As noted by Dr Basil Holt in his book on the Transkei, Where Rainbirds Call , it is a bird particularly associated with the former Transkei region of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa: “It may be true, as the bird books tell us, that it is found as far north as Tanzania and Malawi. I do not know. For me it is forever associated with the scenes of my youth: the Matiwane Mountains, shadowed and cool above Umtata, the deep recesses of the forest at Ngcwanguba, where old Tshiwo the Xhosa chief has lain buried since 1702, and the Mount Packard Mission that looks down the valley to the sea, where the ships sail by on their way to Durban.”

It is the eating habits of this bird that lead me to call it “nasty” - and I admit that is an anthropomorphism indeed. The Burchell's Coucal is a voracious bird which eats almost any prey smaller than itself, and it's quite a large bird, and is particularly partial to young nestlings and the eggs of other birds. For these it will frequently raid the nests of other birds and devour whatever it finds there, to the evident dismay of many of the owners of the nests. Not a nice thing to do from a human point of view, but it is after all a wild bird and will do what it has to to survive.

C.J. Vernon, writing in the magnificent survey of Southern African birds, The Complete Book of Southern African Birds , compiled by P.J. Ginn, W.G. McIlleron and P. le S. Milstein (Struik, 1989) wrote that Coucals are also sometimes the prey: “There are records of Burchell's Coucals being taken by eagles, and at the prey-plucking site of a Black Sparrowhawk near East London I found the feathers of an adult Burchell's Coucal.”

This bird is in fact found as far north as Ethiopia, in Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. It is found in the highveld region of South Africa and to the north, as well as on the coastal regions from Maputo to the Western Cape.

The birds which have been delighting me with their music for the past few days seem to have found a home in the thatched roof of the neighbouring house. We have spotted three birds so far.

It is always special to see one of these birds, because they are beautiful and have an aura about them, no doubt partly due to their shyness but also to their rain-predicting reputation.

"The Rainbird" by Douglas Livingstone

 

One day you turned to me and said "Goodbye",

"We're all washed up," and "Better we should part."

Then as my spirit jerked and bobbed afloat

I drowned in unreality to lie

Upon a muddy world that leaned awry

With Bubbles, weed, old boots and fishy dart.


Then from this depth I stood, absurd, remote,

And drifted out.

Beneath a filmy sky

I paused to listen to my flustered heart

And heard instead he rainbird's liquid note.

I surfaced, walking with a firmer tread

And joined the rainbird in his mournful art,

but as the cricket in his plastic coat,

I gaily chirruped how my love was dead.


Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 36 comments

Russ Baleson profile image

Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

Hi Tony, I love the way you describe the call. It is music. I miss the music of the South African birds very much. Thanks for a well written reminder. Go well. Russ


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

I like the way you describe it. I wish I could see one.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Russ - thanks, good friend! You be well too.

Love and peace

Tony


Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

Tatjana-Mihaela 6 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

You really made the story about rainbird very special. Thank you. The same as Robwrite, I would also wish to see and hear one of them.

Peace...


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Rob - thanks for the comment and they are lovely to look at (and hear). You just gave me the idea to find a YouTube vid - and I've found one. Adding it now. Don't know why I didn't think of that before!

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Tatjana - thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I think you and Rob must get yourselves over here so I can show you around!

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

We are so privileged for having the most beautiful birds. And I’m sure they whisper the thoughts of others in our ears. The whole of this past week I was busy planning hubs about mossies and vinke in my head – for their habits amaze me. And what do I get? A hub of Tony about a bird! LOL! And I think this is the second time you read my thoughts, or did I read yours? Must be the birds.... Excellent hub, Tony, as always.


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Hi Tony! I have mostly Cardinals, finches, doves, and a lot of others that drop by for free sunflower seeds. I start feeding them around sunrise. I love birds. Great hub Bud!


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

This is one lucky bird for living in Africa. If it lived in Cyprus, it would be lunch :-)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Martie - must be the birds! Thanks for the comment and I'm sorry if I took a thought from you! But there is surely rook for more Hubs on the subject!

Love and peace

Tony


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Hi Tony your rainbird would get laryngitis if it lived in Scotland, singing every time it rains. It’s a good job if it doesn’t come from where the ‘Children of the Mist’ once lived. (Is Scotch mist rain?)


always exploring profile image

always exploring 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

I loved your story about the rainbird and Livenstone,s poem was touching. Thank you for sharing.

Love and Peace


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - I also feed the birds sunflower seed and other seeds as well. I get mostly Cape sparrows, bulbuls, Cape robins and Karoo thrushes, with the occasional visit of a crested barbet and a masked weaver. I am planning a Hub on the feathered visitors to my garden, but thought the rainbird was too special to wait!

Love and peace

Tony


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Enchanting story filled with beautiful imagery of the rainbird, tonymac04. I've become fascinated with the variety of birds that visit us on their way somewhere else and with those that live here in TX. Their "liquid notes from the trees" are so beautiful that my dog stops to tip his head and listen as well. Will keep my eye open for the story of your other feathered visitors.


reddog1027 6 years ago

How luck to have a bird that makes such beautiful music living right next door. Thanks for sharing with us.


li smith ion-eco profile image

li smith ion-eco 6 years ago from Hermanus, South Africa

Thanks for a lovely article on the 'rainbird'. I've seen them in the Transvaal, but never here in Hermanus.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Hi everyone! Sorry it's tgaken me so long to respond, and then with a general response to all of your kind comments! I am doing my best with a recalcitrant laptop which, in spite of having bought a cooling pad, is still overheating and shutting down every so often. Have to nurse it along a bit as I can't afford a new one just now! LOL!

Also for three days last week I was running a workshop in Johannesburg and so could not get to HubPages.

Your comments are all much appreciated and I thank you very much for them.

I am going to visit your latest Hubs now in turn, for as long as the laptop keeps going!

Love and peace

Tony


ralwus 5 years ago

Gee what a cool bird and I am so glad that you included the video of him. Now I won't need to search for his song. Thanks Tony. Enjoy them as long as you can before the season ends.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Charlie - thanks so much, brother. It is such a cool bird, so beautiful. On Sunday morning heard one calling over and over again. Just got lost in the sound - really lovely!

Love and peace

Tony


katiem2 profile image

katiem2 5 years ago from I'm outta here

Oh how I love birds, the call of the South Arica Rainbird is beautiful. What a great idea to feature birds and videos of their calls, habitat and eating habits as well. I for one hope to enjoy more bird hubs from you. Peace and Blessings :)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Katie - it is a lovely bird with a really beautiful call indeed. I have got a few "bird Hubs" up my sleeve. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


erich, port alfred 5 years ago

we are xtremely fortunate in having two pairs living close to our abode and hearing their continuous call, especially in early morning.they also make a different call, kree,kree,kree,kree,kree,kree. i have not been able to see them when they actually make this sound and suspect it probably occurs when there is encroachment on their territory as it is an aggressive sound.

we have only seen them feeding on ground level especially beneath a brumeliad in our garden.

since their arrival ,about three years ago.the snail population deminished quite rapidly and i suspect it must part of their food chain.

hope this is of value .

thanks for your input ,i enjoyed it.erich


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Erich - you are indeed fortunate! I wish the Rainbirds here would get into my rather large snail population! So far they haven't, but I live in hope.

The "kree-kree" sound is indeed a sound of anger or aggression.

Thanks again for stopping by and contributing such interesting information.

Love and peace

Tony


David Morty - Pretoria 5 years ago

Had a surprise visitor yesterday while watching the news & enjoying my early morning coffee & pills. A large coucal suddenly appeared in the TV room after entering via the kitchen & dining room. Took me at least 15mins to get it out of the house. They are quite large birds and it's sudden appearance gave me quite a scare - good job I had taken my daily pills


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

David - how amazing! Very unusual for a Coucal to behave like that - they are usually very shy. Must have given you quite a shock - they're not small!

Thanks for letting me know.

Love and peace

Tony


swedal profile image

swedal 5 years ago from Colorado

Eww! I see what you mean by nasty. Being a human, eating the young of others does sound gross. Good thing that I already had breakfast. ;)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Swedal - thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. Glad your breakfast was safe!

Love and peace

Tony


Hendrik 5 years ago

I found your post very helpful: Now I know it's Burchell's Coucal we sometimes hear in the western parts of Johannesburg (there are many reedfields around); and I saw one a week ago in our small garden bathing himself in the birdbath! He was almost larger than the bath, but that didn't stop him. He would get in on the one side, and bending low to get through under an overhanging branch, wriggle to the other side. Then he would get out and shake off the water, perching on the side of the bath, showing off his handsome tail feathers. This went on for more than five minutes. It felt like a godly creature from some ancient myth hadd visited us. It could well have been Pan.


alexander.j.s.dowding@gmail.com 5 years ago

I am near certain that I have Burchell's Coucals skulking around in the veld surrounding my house. The call is certainly very familiar and not easy to forget. As you say them being shy birds most definitely explains why I'm having trouble getting a visual. I once noticed a largish bird, reddish brown in colour sitting on a bush in the distance, but my eyesight being poor and not having my glasses or a pair of binoculars to hand I couldn't verify it's identity for sure. Until the day that I am able to confirm 100% that they do indeed have a presence here I will continue to hope and search. They are stunning birds and fast becoming my favourite.

Awesome article Tony.


Jen A 4 years ago

We are fortunate enough to live on the banks of a stream and often are visited by a Burchell's Coucal. We love the sound of their call but this morning were very surprised to see one hopping about in our fan palm and making a strange "hissing" call - something we never knew the Coucal made. We thought it may be a distress call, perhaps a snake nearby. Can anyone explain ?


Helen 4 years ago

Live on the WildCoast in the old Transkei and am privileged to have my property border a small dale/glen where the Rainbirds clamber around. Saw a juvenile foraging in the lawn (at first it looked like a big rat as only the body and tail were visible)a few months ago. The liquid sound it makes and you refer to is, for us, a sure sign of rain to follow, within three days. When, however, it 'swears' crassly and 'hisses' we have, without fail, experienced severe rain and storms.


Janet Tokai 3 years ago

hi. I am so lucky to have a coucal (must be more than one though) living in the wetlands in front of my apartment. Have heard the beautiful rain song for ages and strangely enough have not known until now that it is the coucal. Have had many sightings in the last few days, and at last have the bird connected to the call. As the Rainbird, it is certainly very accurate. Not sure I like it's eating habits though!!!!


Billie-Jo Rainbird 3 years ago

i knew there was a bird called the Rainbird and this help me prove it thank you


Keys 3 years ago

You've captured this pecerftly. Thanks for taking the time!


Mariette Venter 10 months ago

Thanks so much for your lovely description of the rain bird. For the past few months two of these lovely "shy" birds have frequented my garden. I suspect that they've nested in a neighboring tree on a vacant stand because I see and hear them so often when its humid and overcast here on the KZN coast.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 9 months ago from Ontario, Canada

This bird is really not familiar to me. I would like to listen to it one day.

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