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Lesser Coucal
Centropus bengalensis

Bubut Kecil, But-but (Malay)


Coucals feed on large insects, frogs, lizards, snakes. They hunt these among the undergrowth, using their powerful bills to catch and kill their prey.

Coucals are rather terrestrial, preferring to walk than fly. They emerge in the open only in the early morning. The rest of the day, they forage on foot in tall grass. When disturbed, they make a short flight with shallow wing beats and brief glides into cover. They then scuttle away on foot. They are strong runners and have straight hind claws and are sometimes called "lark-heeled cuckoos".

Lesser Coucals are mostly solitary, only rarely seen in pairs. They specialise in more open grasslands (lallang and other tall grasses) both dry and marshy, while the Greater Coucals (C. sinensis) are found in thickets.

Breeding: Lesser Coucals have a courtship ritual of offering each other titbits like a leaf or grasshopper.

Although they are members of the cuckoo family, Lesser Coucals do not lay their eggs in other birds' nests.
They build their own nests. These are usually well concealed and comprise a large globe (18 x 25cm) made of twigs or grass (blades and stems) with a large entrance hole to one side. The nest is sometimes lined with green leaves and grass.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Medium (38cm); black plumage; wings and back chestnut; eyes red, bill and feet black.

Breeding adult: Nape and upper back pale buff streaking.
lesser coucal
Photo from
Morten Strange and
Allen Jeyarajasingam
Juvenile and non-breeding adult: head, neck and mantle brown streaked with pale buff; rump and upper tail coverts, blackish barred rufous; tail dark brown glossed with green; underparts buffy with paler streaks.

Call: Described as a series of mellow whoops; 3-4 hiccups followed by knocking rattles; sharp 3-note call that sounds like got-to-go; or boot-boot-boot, like their Malay name.

In flight: Low, rapid shallow flapping with long spurts of gliding, seldom raising their wings above the horizontal.

Similar birds: Greater Coucal (C. sinensis): The Lesser is smaller, somewhat paler and has chestnut wing-linings, while the Greater has black wing-linings. Unlike the Greater, when in the breeding the Lesser has pale buff streaking on nape and upper back and appears more streaky and scruffy because the Lesser has very glossy head feather shafts which reflect the light and make them appear almost white.

Status in Singapore: Common resident throughout the island and North offshore islands.

World distribution:
India to East Indonesia.

Classification: Family Centropodidae. World 30 species, Singapore 2 species. Order Cuculiformes (Cuckoos).
They build in open grasslands, close to the ground, incorporating tall grass stems into the nest. Less frequently, low in bushes or trees.

2-3 white eggs are laid in December-July. Hatchlings are black skinned with long bristly down. Like other Coucals, when disturbed, the chicks squirt out copious amounts of foul-smelling liquid faeces.

The Coucals have the head and bill of a crow, but long tail feathers of a pheasant. In fact, in the past, they were known as crow-pheasants.

Argus Argument

A local folktale explains why the
Argus Pheasant is so beautifully marked
while the Coucal is so plain.

One day, both birds met and decided
to help each other disguise themselves
from their enemies with tattoos. The Coucal diligently marked the Argus with fine and beautiful tattoos, but when it came to the Argus' turn, it was too lazy and simply poured the tattoo ink over the Coucal and ran away!!

Status and threats: Lesser Coucals have adapted well to open grasslands and secondary growths that result from human interference. They are often the first to colonise a new patch of lallang and other wastelands. They are not considered at risk in Singapore. In fact, they have become among the most common of the cuckoo family in Singapore.

REFERENCES
  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • Morten Strange, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Malaysia and Singapore: including Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Borneo", Periplus, 2000 (p. 159: description, voice, habits, distribution, status, photo).
  • Morten Strange, "Tropical Birds of Malaysia and Singapore", Periplus Editions, 2000 (p. 30: habits, habitat, photo).
  • David R Wells, "The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Vol. 1 (Non-Passarines)", Academic Press, 1999 (p. 408-409: identification, distribution map, habits, habitat, migration, conservation).
  • Lim Kim Seng and Dana Gardner, "Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing Ltd., 1997 (p. 37: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, diagram, number of species).
  • G W H Davison and Chew Yen Fook, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", New Holland Publishers Ltd., 1995 (p. 52: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, photo).
  • Morten Strange and Allen Jeyarajasingam, "Birds: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing, 1993 (p. 82: description, distribution, habits, habitat, photo).
  • Clive Briffett, "A Guide to the Common Birds of Singapore", BP Science Centre,1992 (p. 70: about the Greater Coucal: habit, habitat).
  • Christopher Hails, "Birds of Singapore" illustrated by Frank Jarvis, Times Editions, 1987 reprinted 1995 (p. 93: habits, description, status in Singapore, and lovely drawings of the birds).
  • Lim Kim Seng, "Vanishing Birds of Singapore", Nature Society (Singapore), 1992 (p. 9: status in Singapore).
  • Lim Kim Seng, "Pocket Checklist of the Birds of the Republic of Singapore", Nature Society (Singapore), 1999 (Abundance, status, Chinese and Malay names).
  • M W F Tweedie, "Common Birds of the Malay Peninsula", Longman,1970 (p. 24: brief mention).
  • G C Madoc, "An Introduction to Malayan Birds", Malayan Nature Society, 1947 (p. 35: description, habits, habitat).
  • Sir John A S Bucknill and E N Chasen, "Birds of Singapore and South-East Asia", Tynron Press, 1927, edition 1990 (p. 150: about the Greater Coucal; local folktale about the Argus and the Coucal; identification, status in Singapore, distribution, field notes on habits).
  • Dr. Harold G Cogger (et. al), "Encyclopedia of Animals"; Turacos and Cuckoos by S Marchant, Weldon Owen, 1993 (p. 360-362; habits, habitat).
 
By Ria Tan, 2001