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The koels (and their call) return to Canberra for spring

Ian Fraser 31 October 2019 146
A female koel in Duffy

A female koel in Duffy. Photos: Ian Fraser.

This morning I heard my first koel of spring. For me the ringing clear ‘COO-eee’ or the manic ascending ‘whoopa whoopa whoopa whoopa!’ are welcome sounds, another clear statement that spring is here. 

However, I’m aware that my pleasure in the arrival of this charismatic bird is far from universally shared by my fellow Canberrans.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, some people seem driven to distraction by their defiant anthem – admittedly koels do seem to have a pretty high boredom threshold and can go on a bit in the small hours. To my ears, though, it’s still far preferable to revving motors and car alarms but, of course, that’s just me.

Koels entered Canberra legend a few years back when a newly-elected member of the Assembly was persuaded by a few intolerant constituents to demand that the Environment Minister put on the record his plans “to eradicate or manage” this “imported pest”. Oops, the bird is very much a native and has migrated between its Australian breeding grounds to warm winter retreats in New Guinea and Indonesia for many tens of thousands of years. 

In a sense, though, she was right in that these handsome big cuckoos are a relatively recent part of Canberra’s summer landscape – and especially its soundscape. Twenty or so years back only the occasional koel overshot its normal summer breeding range, on the coast to the north of here, and spent some unplanned time in Canberra.

In the last decade or so, however, they have rapidly become a regular and widespread visitor, laying their eggs in the nests of red wattlebirds and leaving them to raise their chicks – standard cuckoo behaviour. 

But there’s a twist to the koel-wattlebird story, too. For much of the 20th century, there were no red wattlebirds in Sydney. They moved gradually north along the coast, perhaps influenced by the provision of orchards, though that’s just speculation.

When they got to Sydney in the 1970s they met koels for the first time. The koels had hitherto relied on noisy friarbirds, magpie-larks and figbirds as hosts for their chicks, all of which had developed some defences against them.

Koel chick being fed by a red wattlebird in Canberra

Koel chick being fed by a red wattlebird in Canberra.

However, the unfortunate red wattlebirds, with just the right-sized nest to appeal to the koels, hadn’t a clue what to do about it because they’d never needed to. While other hosts rejected at least some koel eggs, the wattlebirds still haven’t learnt to do so.

Koels are fruit eaters, so there are relatively limited opportunities for them on the tablelands, compared to the coast where rainforest pockets and the introduced camphor laurels provide good pickings. But Canberra, once they discovered it, was a bonanza of fruits (ornamental plums suit them well) and of course, a very healthy population of red wattlebirds to co-opt into raising their chicks. 

But the question remains – why did they come here to start with?

The answer lies in our warming world, a story whose multiple implications we live with every day. They are just an obvious example of the numerous species around the world which are moving steadily towards the poles, and up mountains, as temperatures rise to make places hospitable which were previously too cool.

A male koel with glossy blue black plumage. Photo: Ian Fraser

You’re much more likely to hear koels than see them, though you can track them down with a bit of patience. They can be surprisingly hard to spot initially for such a big bird and their calls are so carrying that the singer is often considerably further away than you think. He is glossy blue-black with a long tail and staring red eyes; she is quite different, spotted above and barred below in soft browns and creamy-white with a black cap. 

But whether, like me, you welcome these newcomers to Canberra, or would prefer car alarms to their riotous concerts, don’t forget that they’re only here because we, in altering the very climate of the earth, have made it possible for them to come.

Have you heard the koels calling in your neighbourhood?

Ian Fraser is a Canberra naturalist, conservationist and author. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT government on biodiversity and published multiple guides to the region’s flora and fauna.


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146 Responses to The koels (and their call) return to Canberra for spring
Amy Shipway Amy Shipway 6:48 pm 09 Nov 19

James Stuart-Smith aaaahhhh

Kristie Lee Kristie Lee 11:04 pm 08 Nov 19

Caley Callahan it's that awful sounding bird!!!

Crazed_Loner Crazed_Loner 10:08 am 08 Nov 19

To correct one thing, while there might have been some intolerant constituents involved, it was the then Liberal shadow Minister for the Environment, Nicole Lawder, who called for the eradication of this “imported pest”. Which possibly tells you a lot about the Liberals and their relationship to environmental matters.
And yes, while climate change deniers are out there howling at the moon (and scientists), the changing distribution and migration patterns of birds, fish and animals, and the changing response of plants (such as wine vines) pays them no heed and is proof right there in the natural world that the climate is warming. And yet…

Michael Corrigan Michael Corrigan 7:38 am 08 Nov 19

Marley Corrigan these are the birds I showed you!

    Marley Corrigan Marley Corrigan 7:42 am 08 Nov 19

    Michael Corrigan I think the Gooby birds is a much more scientific label

    Michael Corrigan Michael Corrigan 6:37 pm 08 Nov 19

    Marley Corrigan ornithologist

Anthony Smith Anthony Smith 6:07 pm 07 Nov 19

The koel is a welcome bird, its si ings as it flies, it brings us good tidings, it tells us no lies, it promises us warm day's cheer,and every time it si ings KOEL, KOEL,bright summer draweth near. Cheer up. And it's far better than these Channel Bill croakers

Michael Ninness Michael Ninness 6:36 am 06 Nov 19

Lately I have heard them to, but I have also seen leprechauns in my garden, must be climate change.. Perhaps I can to apply for more funds, to conduct research on the Leprechauns- funded by the tax payer of course... it would be great instead of doing something myself to clean up my own house 😬

Anna Francesca Clancy Anna Francesca Clancy 10:41 pm 05 Nov 19

Andrew Boyden. You were right about the Koels in Canberra!

Emma Swan Emma Swan 9:55 pm 05 Nov 19

Britney Aikman how is it possible that this just popped into my newsfeed?? 🐦🐦

David Bibo David Bibo 9:02 pm 05 Nov 19

Cheryl Bibo

Sophie Vardos Sophie Vardos 8:59 pm 05 Nov 19

Roderick Baxter an interesting read!

Cate Leyland Cate Leyland 7:39 pm 05 Nov 19

Dan Borrett...mystery solved!

    Dan Borrett Dan Borrett 7:44 pm 05 Nov 19

    Cate Leyland that actually makes total sense 😂👌

Laird Malcolm Robert Gall Laird Malcolm Robert Gall 12:48 pm 05 Nov 19

They love our fruiting mulberry.

Roger Reidy Roger Reidy 9:15 am 05 Nov 19

Great article Ian - as a Sydney-sider who has holidayed on the far South Coast for over 25 years, I noticed the arrival of the occasional Koel down there some years back too - now regular customers!

Sarah Cathie Sarah Cathie 9:10 am 05 Nov 19

Sure they sound nice from a distance. But you wouldn’t love them if they chose the tree outside your bedroom window to hang out in. Screeching at 4am every morning!

Last year was torture. We were away the week they decided to pick our tree, but this year we were home when they showed up and between us and the dog we managed to make enough of a ruckus to encourage them to choose a different tree. So we can still hear them but not right outside our window.

    John Anthony Dinn John Anthony Dinn 1:47 pm 05 Nov 19

    Sarah Cathie i absolutely agree. They have no redeeming features that i can see. I discovered on line that if you record their call and play it back to them the fly away. THEY cant even sound their own sound!

Hannah Bartlett Hannah Bartlett 7:00 am 05 Nov 19

Cam Hansell let’s find one!

Teah Jiacomin Teah Jiacomin 11:48 pm 04 Nov 19

Lowanna Lowes this is what annoys the 💩 out of us every spring 🤣🤪

    Sarah Cathie Sarah Cathie 9:02 am 05 Nov 19

    Teah Jiacomin it makes me consider cruelty to animals 😆

Tracey Ganchov Tracey Ganchov 7:38 pm 04 Nov 19

3:30 in the morning 😱

Michael Clarke Michael Clarke 4:26 pm 04 Nov 19

Tara Clarke are you a threat

    Tara Clarke Tara Clarke 4:32 pm 04 Nov 19

    Omfg 🤣🤣🤣 Actual footage of me at 5am

Elizabeth Pinkerton Elizabeth Pinkerton 3:49 pm 04 Nov 19

People hate them here but I like them they are just looking for mates to keep them company.

Nicola Power Nicola Power 3:42 pm 04 Nov 19

Jill Bruce noisy bird

    Jill Robilliard Jill Robilliard 3:43 pm 04 Nov 19

    We obviously aren't the only ones commenting. The male and females are so different.

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