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Source: Department of Conservation

By Tamara Christie-Siaosi, Tāmaki-Makaurau

How are those international travel plans going for you right now? I’m assuming not so great. Ideas of overseas voyaging have clearly been grounded.

Migratory birds are exempt from travel bans and pay no attention to pandemics. Their rhythm of life continues in spite of border closures and as spring arrives, you may have already heard the call of particular mini migrants in your neighbourhood.

Pīpīwharauroa/shining cuckoo in kowhai tree on Mana Island. Photo: Leon Berard

Pīpīwharauroa/shining cuckoo is a small and cryptic coloured bird that spends winters in the warmer Pacific Islandss, returning to Aotearoa during kōanga/spring.  Pīpīwharauroa can be heard throughout Aōtearoa in forested areas throughout the country, near scrub in farmed and urban areas. More often seen than heard, pīpīwharauroa has a distinct whistling call and some very interesting breeding habits.

Pīpīwharauroa/shining cuckoo. Photo: Gregory Sherley

Like all cuckoos, the pīpīwharauroa gets other birds to hatch and raise their young. By laying their eggs in nests of riroriro/grey warblers, the cuckoo takes a break while the hapless warbler fosters the young pīpīwharauroa for several weeks until it can look after itself. The warblers think they’ve done a great job raising a chick that is twice their size and they remain oblivious to fact that the chick is not truly theirs!

Riroriro/grey warbler. Photo: Shellie Evans

Grey warbler are often preyed on by rats, possums and cats and although the seasonal pīpīwharauroa continues to breed across Aotearoa, their little hatchlings being raised by our grey warbler often become prey. Good pest control will ensure that by protecting our grey warblers our seasonal friends will continue to visit and breed. What a sad spring it would be without the call of pīpīwharauroa!

Māori have taken their cues from nature for many generations. They welcome pīpīwharauroa with the proverb “Ka tangi te wharauroa, ko ngā karere a mahuru” – “If the shining cuckoo cries, it is the messenger of spring”.

When the pīpīwharauroa sings “Kui! Kui! Kui!”  this is to signify that it is time to plant crops. Closer to summer this song turns to “Kui! Kui! Kui! Whiti whiti ora” telling the people that all is well and food supplies are ready.

Dave Houston is a DOC Technical Advisor in Auckland and keeps an ear out for pīpīwharauroa each spring.  This year Dave heard the first calls near his Dairy Flat home in the first few days of September:

“This year, they’re on time! I listen out for their arrival from the Solomon Islands at the beginning of September and have heard them regularly since. It’s like clockwork – cuckoo clockwork.”

Now that we have entered spring and lockdown has reduced the artificial sounds of the city, the sounds of Papatūānuku grow louder. Listen for the call of pīpīwharauroa. The sounds of nature when you step outside have awakened a sense of curiosity among people and an appreciation that in Spring, nature is still doing what nature does.

Pīpīwharauroa. Photo: J L Kendrick

About pīpīwharauroa

The name pīpīwharauroa, is interesting. ‘Wharaunga’ means voyage, ‘roa’ means long and ‘pīpī’ means shed. How fitting that the Shining Cuckoos name refers to a long voyage to shed its eggs.

There are many references to the beautiful sound of the pīpīwharauroa in our waiata. “Kui! Kui! Kui! Whitiwhiti Ora!”  – learned and celebrated in schools across our nation for many years, the migration of pīpīwharauroa is timeless.

Waiata – Tōia mai te waka nei

Tōia mai te waka nei
Kūmea mai te waka nei
Ki te takotoranga takoto ai
Tiriti te mana Motuhake
Te tangi a te manu e
Kūi! Kūi! Kūi!
Whiti! Whitiora!
Hui e, Tāiki e!

Haul this canoe
Drag the canoe up here
To its resting place;
The Treaty gives us our autonomy
May the cry of the bird,
The shining cuckoo
Quee! Quee! Quee!
Signal a change for the better.
Draw together, become intertwined!