- Colour: grey to brown-grey, darkest on its wings and back. It has a dark eye stripe and a bright yellow ring around its eye; its grey underparts fade to white near its tail, which is black-brown with prominent white barring. Its bill is brown and curved downward slightly, and its legs and feet are grey-brown.
- Females are generally darker than males, with dark rufous-brown or grey streaks on the forehead, top of head and neck.
- Young birds are mottled brown and buff above, with a white spot on the hindneck, and are streaked grey-brown and white underneath.
- Size: 28 – 33 cm long.
- Call: a loud, ascending whistle (“too-too-too…”), often repeated continuously, giving rise to one of its vernacular names, Brainfever-bird.
- Diet: mostly eat insect larvae, especially hairy caterpillars, but they also eat adult insects. It feeds by pouncing from a low perch onto prey on the ground, and occasionally plucks caterpillars from leaves or branches.
- Movement: a breeding migrant in southern Australia, it arrives in late winter or early spring, remains for the spring–summer breeding period, and usually departs by the end of summer or early autumn, though some birds may be recorded at any time in southern mainland southern Australia. It is absent from Tasmania during winter. In northern Australia, it is usually a non-breeding visitor, especially during the dry season, but some birds may occur there during any part of the year.
- Breeding: Like other cuckoos, Pallid Cuckoos exhibit nest parasitism, where a single egg is laid in the nest of another bird, especially honeyeaters, robins, flycatchers, whistlers and woodswallows. Common host species include the Yellow-faced Honeyeater and Willie Wagtail. The female cuckoo removes one of the host’s eggs from the nest and replaces it with her own. The egg is said to usually closely resemble that of the host’s, and the host parents incubate the egg for 12–14 days. The young cuckoo instinctively forces the other eggs and chicks out of the nest, and is fed by its host parents for up to 6 weeks after it leaves the nest.
What to Observe
- Hosts feeding young
ClimateWatch Science Advisor
Cuckoos are very inconspicuous birds, except when they are calling, and are typically only recorded through their call. Climate change may change their breeding season by changing the breeding season of their hosts. This will most obviously manifest itself in changes in the time of year when they are calling. We would expect calling to begin and finish earlier in the year in southern Australia. The effects of climate change may also influence a change in the timing of movements by Pallid Cuckoos, or even make them redundant. Help scientists answer the question: "How are our animals, plants and ecosystems responding to climate change?" by recording the observations above.
When To Look
- From August–September to December–January in southern and eastern Australia for breeding activity; in northern Australia, though eggs may be laid in any season, they are mainly from August to January.
- From July–August to February or March for birds that migrate to southern Australia to breed. Some may occur throughout the year in other regions, but in northern Australia they are usually a non-breeding visitor during the dry season.
Note: ClimateWatch is looking for any changes in the timing of these events, so remember to keep a lookout from July for breeding activity!
Where To Look
- In most open forests and woodlands; it often occurs in cleared, open country and farmland.
- Throughout Australia.
- It is often heard before it is seen, calling from a high dead branch or a fence post.
Note: ClimateWatch is looking for any changes in their known ranges, so remember to keep a lookout anywhere in Australia!
Higgins PJ (ed.) 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Vol. 4. Parrots to Dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Reader's Digest 1997. Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. Reader's Digest (Australia) Pty Ltd.
Strahan R (ed) 1994. Cuckoos, Nightbirds and Kingfishers of Australia. Angus and Robertson/Australian Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife, Sydney.
- Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus saturatus): has obvious black and white barring across its lower breast and belly. It does not breed in Australia, and usually only occurs in northern and eastern Australia, where it is far less common than the Pallid Cuckoo.
- Another cuckoo: won’t be mostly grey with broad black-and-white barring under its tail.
Did You Know?
The call recording is by David Stewart Naturesound
Its average weight is 80 – 85 grams.
It is often heard before it is seen.
It is the most widely distributed cuckoo in Australia.
Its egg-laying period is seasonal and not strictly correlated with the breeding season of host birds in a particular region. Therefore, early or late parts of the breeding season of some species may be free of parasitism by this cuckoo.
Listen to the Call