The Annual Cuckoo Migration: channel-billed cuckoos and koels

Each spring the Channel-billed Cuckoo and the Common Koel fly from their homes in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to mate in the sub-tropical region of Australia. The arrival of their distinctive calls marks the passing of another year.

The Channel-billed Cuckoo
The Channel-billed Cuckoo is the world’s largest parasitic bird, its wingspan measuring up to 1 metre. The cuckoo is devious in the way it uses other bird species to rear its chicks – by working in pairs the male cuckoo provokes host-birds into chasing it while the female cuckoo slips into the host-nest to lay its eggs. For several months the east coast region is filled with pterodactyl-like calls as the cuckoos apply this breeding strategy. Once the chick hatches it is unwittingly fed by the host-bird until it is strong enough to fly north to Papua New Guinea.

The Common Koel
In contrast to the raucous call of the Channel-billed Cuckoo the Common Koel adds a mournful tone to the soundscape. Folklore states that the arrival of the Koel signals the beginning of the rainy season. In the recording below small drops of rain fall in the background:

The Koel can be heard calling for hours throughout the day and night. Its breeding strategy is similar to the Channel-billed Cuckoo. Once the chick hatches it kicks out other hatchlings and eggs from the nest and is raised by the host-bird before it flies to its Indonesian homeland.

The annual migration of these extremely vocal birds marks the calendar in a way that other events throughout the year do not. This is yet another example of the way in which sound reflects the passage of time.

36 thoughts on “The Annual Cuckoo Migration: channel-billed cuckoos and koels

    1. Yes, the channel-billed cuckoo is as menacing as it can be annoying, sometimes calling like this in the trees by my bedroom at night. Nothing subtle about it! Maybe because the koel is a lot smaller it needs to be a bit more stealthy.

  1. I grew up on a cane farm in the Mackay district in North Queensland. In our area the channel-billed cuckoo was “The Storm Bird.” My father looked for years before he actually saw what was making the call. The single call around 1m35s of the recording is what I remember.
    Thank you for the recording.

    1. Hi Paul, I’m happy that the sounds in the recording have brought back some memories from your childhood (I grew up on a cane farm too!). It’s funny the way that these long forgotten sounds trigger other memories from those distant periods.

  2. Your site provided us with the answer that was bugging us for over two weeks now. What could this bird be, seeing its such a large bird. This noisy bird starts around 4.00 in the arvo and finishes calling around 7.00 in the morning. Its has been very entertaining in the trees around the neighbourhood. I can see now from what you have said about the mating habits of this bird. Thanks for your site of bird calls we now have our answer as to what it is. We live in Maryborough Qld and I have never heard this call before.

  3. Having been long fascinated with the channel-billed cuckoo, I haven’t been able to find out this… the parents “wait” for the host parents to feed their baby until strong enough to fly….and then all go back north together? Or not? We are also witness to families of Coucal pheasants here, who do raise their own young.

    1. Hi Robyn. You have posed a question that I have wondered about too. The parents seem to hang around for months which makes me think that this would be long enough for their chicks to hatch and be strong enough to fly north. We have the pheasants here too, sounds of summer.

  4. The second Koel sound was the one I wanted to identify. I’ve been hearing it each morning – the 4 ascending notes – and its clear voice sounded exactly the same as the afternoon 2 note call that seems to drive some people crackers!
    Thanks for this site – I’m finding out so much. Wonderful dawn chorus here this morning.

  5. Thank you soooo much for posting these recordings. We’ve had a pair of koels living in our mulberry tree for five summers now (Sydney), presumably while baby is raised nearby. Later in the year, we see all three of them (mum, dad and teenager) using the tree as a base while they teach teenager to harass the wattle birds, which probably raised the chick in the first place. But it was only this week that I actually SAW a channel-billed cuckoo fly out of tree, pursued by a family of magpie-larks. I was able to listen to your recording and realise the bird has also been around for at least two summers, but I didn’t realise that was the it’s call – I thought it was another call of the koel, or some other bird.
    And I loved what you wrote about sound reflecting the passage of time. No matter how cold or wintry it may be (Sydney’s erratic weather), my heart lifts with anticipation of spring when I am surprised by the koels calling out to the neighbourhood to announce their return. A tiny part of my brain should probably be saying, Damn koels waking me up and tossing eggs out of nests of poor innocent birds, but in fact I just feel so happy that summer is on it’s way, especially if the wisteria is starting to blossom as well. It’s a great thing having the bird calls and the flower scents all rolled into one memorable marking of the seasons!

    1. Thanks for your comment Sue. I didn’t realise the channel-billed cuckoo could be found so far south. The koels have taken up residence here again for the spring, a mournful cry which I’m not sure I’m ready for this season.

      1. I have a meanacing koel in Albury this week! Worst night shift bird ever.
        I always learnt that they use stars and imprinting in the first few years to navigate home.

      2. We have the cuckoos here in Newcastle as well, only in the last 4 years, my question is if they are killing off so many currawongs how long till they become an endangered species. The same scenario of the Indian mina getting rid of Aussie small birds. Wish there was some intervention to stop this infiltration

  6. Hi, thankgod I found this recording, I’ve been searching for weeks to try and identify what this bird was, the channel-billed cuckoo has been residing in our eastern suburbs neighbourhood in Sydney for quite some weeks now, it wakes me up in the middle of th night and the sound is terrifying when you are half asleep and the final squawk lasts for some time..
    Do you know how long they stick around?

  7. When do these birds leave Australia? We’re in Noosa and they’ve been here since October I think. Looking forward to them leaving as they appear to be the first birds up in the morning at 4.30!

    1. If my memory serves me well I think the cuckoos remain in Australia till about February. Funny to know that we are all experiencing the same morning wake-ups to its soft melodic call 🙂

  8. Hi, that koel has been my nemesis for years! On the sunshine coast,Waking me at 4am in the mornings!recently i also heard him invictoria for the first time!
    My question is, i have recently moved to the beautiful tropics of far nth qld, and am hearing a beautiful call, its almost like a whale sound, except I’m in the rain forest, so I’m pretty sure it’s not that!
    Any ideas what bird it might be?

    1. Hi Claire. This bird seems to be getting a lot of attention here! Interesting to know it flies as far south as Victoria. I don’t think I can help you with your mystery sound, it must be some type of forest bird endemic to that region. Maybe a local person will know.

  9. Koel birds visit Helensburgh every year. They come in huge gangs and apart from making lots of noise they kill and take over our native birds. They take over the nests of birds and kill their young I am glad when they go. We have some peace in the area and order is restored to our bird wild life – it’s February now and they have gone -Sue

  10. Hi,
    I live in Aspley , Brisbane and have heard the Koel ( first recording) for 2 years now and last night for the first time this year – I love the sound its constant and peaceful almost mournful – I lstened for a half hour from about 1 am and then fell asleep…. Im amazed at the navigation and the reasons for the migration – I mean Indo never gets cold and Brisbane is now starting to warm up and today is quite humid already – Im also sorry to hear they chase the natives away similar to the Minas both Indian and Asian… damn pests we used to have such wonderful bird life in the area, strangely enough a group of Currawongs moved in about 18 months ago and took over as well.

    Great site thank you and good luck..


  11. In the blue mountains… Just observed a pair laying in a nest next-door. Unmistakable! I hear them once or twice this time of year but never like that.

    I’m sure I’ll be cursing it in a couple of months time once the baby is whining for food all day, but it still feels like something kind of special.

  12. Thank you for your posts. I now know it is a Common Koel calling day and night keeping us awake here in Bendigo Vic. This is our second year in this house and though we have lived in Bendigo most our lives. It is only here we have heard it. With such a powerful and distinctive call however I was expecting something of more magnificence than another ‘blackbird’.

    1. Ha ha, yes another blackbird … but with its own particular movements and idiosyncrasies. I have to admit that its call signals the beginning of a long hot summer so I inwardly groan when its call begins to dominate the valley here.

  13. There seem to be large numbers of both channel-billed cuckoos and common koels here in Avalon Beach, NSW, judging by the frequency of their calls (at all hours of day and night).. Very useful to hear your recordings; the first recording I understand to be of the channel-billed cuckoo, the second the common koel. Please could you confirm that recording 3 is also the common koel.

  14. Yes, they must be exhausted. Now it’s April, and two channel-bills are still here, sounding quite mournful in our trees. I think the currawongs are finished with them. But why haven’t the cuckoos migrated yet?? Do they sometimes stay put do you think?

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