Albury-WodongaNE VictoriaSouthern New South Wales


The Mysterious Koel

garden, nature

By Jonathon Howard 

It’s normal for folks living along the coast of NSW to hear the sound of the Koels in Spring when they arrive from their wintering grounds further north. These birds let the locals know they have arrived with a loud repeated ‘coo-weee’ call.

However, Koels have also become common visitors to Albury/Wodonga and Northeast Victoria in recent years. I am unsure if this due to climate change or simply a reflection that the recent mega-bushfires that hit the coast means our local environment has become more inviting for them.

Despite all their noise, Koels are fairly shy and not all that easy to see, especially the females. The males are all-black and usually sing from high up in the canopy of a large tree. By contrast the females are brownish, heavily spotted with white, and have a black crown. To me, the female looks a bit like a large wattlebird when she flies from tree to tree. Koels are quite big birds (41 cm long).
Koels are cuckoos and as such lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, notably friarbirds, wattlebirds, figbirds, and magpie-larks but the list of known hosts is long. The female Koel lays a single egg directly in the host’s nest but she may subsequently lay in a number of different nests in a season.

Koels know a good place when they find one. There are a few Koels around my place because the flowering bottlebrushes and eucalypts around my place have attracted loads of wattlebirds and friarbirds. When these honeyeaters start to breed, the Koels seize the opportunity to lay a sneaky egg.

I am sure my neighbours don’t appreciate the male when it calls out at night and gives early wake up calls. By contrast I treasure a Koel’ s presence. Whenever a Koel calls, I jump outside and try to locate it. I have little success as they are often very cryptic and hide in the foliage.

For me, Koels are the one local bird which puzzle my mind. For example, is it just my imagination that the female looks like a large wattlebird or is this a case of deliberate mimicry so the female does not get attacked as she lays her egg in a wattlebird’s nest?  Many of the local honeyeaters such as friarbirds, wattlebirds and noisy miners mob the Koel: how do these honeyeaters know that Koels are a threat to a honeyeater’s breeding success?  These cuckoos are not hunting these adult birds, just looking for nests to lay their eggs in.

When these northern visitors do decide to leave us in March, it will be a sad day for me as it will be a sign that the cold is returning, and I will still have many questions remaining unanswered.

Photo: male and female Koel,  courtesy Climate Watch.