The harbinger of monsoons

Jacobin Cuckoo (shot at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Jun’16)

Having missed all the rain-days so far in Gurgaon, finally my schedule overlapped with those of the rain gods in Gurgaon yesterday. The rains, esp. the monsoons, in our country is a much awaited event. True, that they bring a lot of frustrations in their  wake – water-logged roads being one of them. On the flip side, they are a welcome relief from the hot and searing heat of the summer. And are also a good signal of what lies ahead for the economy. So, the entire country waits with bated breath for the IMD forecast that is made towards the middle of May.

There seems to be this one bird, though, that seems to know exactly when the monsoons come in and makes its presence seen and heard as the monsoon advances. In fact, there is a lot of research connecting the appearance of the Jacobin Cuckoo (or the Pied Cuckoo) in various parts of India with the advent of the monsoons.

The first time I came across this bird was a couple of years back on a weekend break on the outskirts of Gurgaon. It happened to be a juvenile. And this made the identification quite a challenge till I posted this image on Facebook and got some help. And the journey to identify this bird set me off on a fascinating path of discovery.

A juvenile Clamator jacobinus pica (outskirts of Gurgaon, Aug’13)

The earliest reference I could find was the article by Hugh Whistler in 1928 in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 33(1) (pp. 136-145) – The migration of the Pied Crested Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus). A more recent one (if you can call it that) has some specific dates of sighting over 7 years between 1981 & 1987 and interestingly calls out that the bird migrates from Africa to India, crossing the Arabian Sea with the favourable south-west monsoon winds in May and returns with the north-west winds in Oct-Nov.

There are two sub-species of the Jacobin Cuckoo in India – Clamator jacobinus pica and Clamator jacobinus jacobinus with very little to differentiate between the two except the geography. Clamator jacobinus pica is the northern species and is seen roughly north of the line connecting Goa and Orissa. This is the one that has often been considered the “rain visitor” and comes into large parts of North India to breed during Jun-Aug. Clamator jacobinus jacobinus, the southern species, is a resident and breeds between Jan-Mar.

Both species are brood parasites and rely on other birds to raise their young. In this case, their eggs are plain blue and mimic the eggs of the Turdoides babblers – usually the Jungle Babbler or the Large-Grey Babbler. I reckon that the juvenile that I saw was one that may have fallen off the nest that it was hosted in, probably the Jungle Babbler in this case.

The Jacobin Cuckoo is a slender, long-tailed, crested, black-and-white bird with a spot on the wing that appears as a white band in flight. Sexes are alike. In juveniles, the crest is less developed and the wing patch is smaller than in adults. The wings that are deep black in adults are dull and sooty in juveniles. The species is mainly arboreal and is very conspicuous during breeding season (June-August). Call is a metallic peew piu-piu-(piu); pee-ew; piu… (piu… pee-pee-piu). You can hear a great recordings of the call here at this link: courtesy Macaulay Library.

I am hoping that the rains continue for the next few days and I can see the harbinger of the monsoons while on the golf course this weekend.

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