Quite often when we are camping we toss a few bits of bread into the grass around the campsite to see what local residents we can attract. Usually we get a few sparrows, weavers, bulbuls, finches, starlings, and hornbills dropping in for a feed; the more precocious of the local birds. Perhaps an occasional squirrel. And usually it’s a bit of a bun fight. Fly in (well, the squirrels run), gobble as much as you can and scram. Grab a beak-full before your neighbour gets it all.
But just sometimes the plot unfolds differently.
Our campsite at Xakanaka in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana was close to the thick undergrowth at the edge of the Okavango Delta, and we tossed a few bits of bread nearby. The usual birds were quick to arrive (and also a group of less usual birds – Yellow-throated petronias). But then, at a few minutes after four o’clock in the afternoon, out of the undergrowth strode a majestic Coppery-tailed coucal (Centropus cupreicaudus), one of the usually shy, skulking birds that is heard more often than it is seen, and when it is seen, it is most often glimpsed through a thickness of reeds or bushes into which it vanishes by magic.
But after a cautious initial look around, this fellow strode out into the open with supreme confidence. Ignoring us totally, he picked up a piece of bread, but instead of eating it as we expected him to do, he paraded with it in his bill along the edge of the bush.
Now we know that many courting rituals involve food, (even human rituals – many a courting couple’s first date is at a restaurant), but we were still surprised when a female coucal emerged from the dense undergrowth and joined him and his trophy in the relative open.
Her appearance brought the male’s display to an abrupt end. Without any further ado he proceeded, bread in bill, to mount her, handing over the bread mid-way through the performance. She accepted the bread and held it in her bill until the deed was done, after which she disappeared back into the bush from whence she had come, still clutching the bread.
The male walked a little way through the campsite, not quite as haughty as he had been earlier, and presumably his appetites were satisfied for the moment as he showed no further interest in the bread.