The Cuckoos of Shanghai

The image above shows three cuckoos of the Shanghai region. Clockwise from L: Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Large Hawk-Cuckoo. Join us as we study the rich array of cuckoos that passes through Shanghai.

by Craig Brelsford

It is spring, and one of the most thrilling moments of the bird migration in Shanghai is upon us—the passage of the Cuculinae, the Old World brood-parasitic cuckoos. Nowhere in the world is the diversity of this group greater than in eastern Eurasia, and here in Shanghai we get an enviable selection. Let us examine our Shanghai-area parasitic cuckoos and learn how to tell them apart.

We can divide the Shanghai-area brood-parasitic cuckoos into two categories: the mainly grey, slender-bodied Cuculus cuckoos and the non-Cuculus cuckoos. We will look at the non-Cuculus cuckoos first.


Large Hawk-Cuckoo
Large Hawk-Cuckoo breeds near Shanghai. In June at Nanjing Botanical Garden, I found this fledgling in the nest of Masked Laughingthrush. (Craig Brelsford)

The non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoo that one is most likely to see in Shanghai is Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides. In the microforests at Cape Nanhui and once, to my surprise, in inner-city Zhongshan Park, I have heard the scream of “Brain fever!” The species breeds in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

The hawk-cuckoos mimic sparrowhawks, an amazing feat of evolution. The resemblance serves, scientists say, not to increase stealth but to decrease it. Passerines, mistaking the intruder for a sparrowhawk, mob it, thereby giving away the location of their nest. After the tumult dies down, the hawk-cuckoo quietly swoops in and lays her egg.

Hawk-cuckoos have bills quite unlike those of the sparrowhawks that they otherwise mimic. L: Japanese Sparrowhawk (Craig Brelsford). R: Large Hawk-Cuckoo (Kai Pflug).

When it comes to the business of eating, however, the masquerade ends. The hooked bill of a sparrowhawk is a butcher’s tool, made for stripping the flesh of vertebrates from bone. The bill of a hawk-cuckoo is blunt, the utensil of a caterpillar-eater. Need a quick differentiator between “sprock” and hawk-cuckoo? Look to the bill.

Large Hawk-Cuckoo
Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows heavy barring and streaking on the throat, breast, and belly and varying degrees of rufous on the upper breast. L: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April (Kai Pflug). Top R: Sichuan, May (Craig Brelsford). Bottom R: Sichuan, June (Craig Brelsford).

Another separation we Shanghai birders need to make is that between Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus. If seen clearly, adult Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo are readily separable. Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a belly washed rufous with faint streaks. Large Hawk-Cuckoo is heavily barred and streaked and has the rufous coloring confined to the upper breast.

Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo (L) shows (1) white neck-sides and nape patch, (2) white scapular crescents, and (3) a rufous border to the black subterminal band on the tail. Large Hawk-Cuckoo (R) shows none of these. L: Jiangsu, September (Craig Brelsford). R: Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, April (Kai Pflug).

Adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo shows a white spot on the nape, white neck-sides, and white scapular crescents. These features may also be visible in sub-adult Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. Large Hawk-Cuckoo shows none of these in any plumage.

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus. The lack of rufous wash on the breast and belly suggests that this is a juvenile. The grey streaking of the adult plumage has appeared. Also visible are the white nape patch and scapular crescents as well as the rufous bands on the tail. Jiangsu, October. (Craig Brelsford)

Size differences may be appreciable. An average Large Hawk-Cuckoo is 15 percent larger than Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The tails differ, with the black subterminal band of Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being bordered by a rufous line above and by the rufous tail-tip below. These rufous areas may be visible in immature cuckoos.


Asian Koel
Asian Koel shows pronounced sexual dimorphism. L: female, June, Cape Nanhui (Kai Pflug). R: male, May, Jiangsu (Craig Brelsford). Eudynamys scolopaceus chinensis is the northernmost-breeding race among the koels, a small, mainly tropical group.

The other non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoos of the Shanghai region are Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus. Neither poses great ID challenges.

In China, Asian Koel ssp. chinensis breeds mainly south of the Yangtze River. With its familiar “koh-EL” song, Asian Koel is as easy to hear as it is hard to see in the dense forests where it is almost invariably found. It shows strong sexual dimorphism, with the male entirely glossy bluish-black and the female brown with whitish streaks, bars, and spots.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo
The parasitic cuckoos are secretive and most conspicuous by sound. In the Tianmu Mountains in May, this poor, fleeting glimpse was all I could manage of this Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. Its presence was more than made known, however, by its piercing whistle and harsh cries. (Craig Brelsford)

I have yet to see Chestnut-winged Cuckoo in Shanghai, but others have noted it at Cape Nanhui. I have seen the species at Laoshan (32.071265, 118.560699) in Nanjing as well as in Zhejiang in the Tianmu Mountains (30.344148, 119.440201). With its glossy-black erectile crest, rufous wings, and long, black tail, the species is unmistakable—if you can manage to see it.


Comparison of yellow iris of Common Cuckoo (left-hand panels) with brown iris of Lesser Cuckoo (top right) and Indian Cuckoo (bottom right). Common and Indian: May, Cape Nanhui. Lesser: October, Jiangsu. (Craig Brelsford)

Five Cuculus cuckoos have been claimed for Shanghai: Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, Indian Cuckoo C. micropterus, Himalayan Cuckoo C. saturatus, Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus, and Common Cuckoo C. canorus.

The latter breeds in the area, parasitizing the nests of Oriental Reed Warbler in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Its famous song, perhaps the best-known bird sound in the world, is hard to miss at Nanhui in May.

Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo breed in the region and are recorded on passage in Shanghai. Himalayan Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo may pass through Shanghai, but as in size, plumage, and bare parts they are nearly identical to each other and very close to Common Cuckoo, and because they rarely (if ever) sing in our region, it is very difficult to know how common they are.

Common Cuckoo (L) is the size of a sparrowhawk and is appreciably larger than the thrush-sized Lesser Cuckoo (R). Himalayan Cuckoo (C) is on average smaller than Common, but the difference is difficult to see. L: Cape Nanhui, May. C: Shaanxi, May. R: Sichuan, June. (Craig Brelsford)

Hear the song of any of these Cuculus, and you will have your ID; even the similar songs of Himalayan and Oriental are readily separable. If your cuckoo is silent, however, then you will need a closer look. Lesser Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo have a brown iris, Common Cuckoo a bright-yellow iris. Lesser Cuckoo is the size of a thrush; Indian Cuckoo is a third larger; Common Cuckoo is larger still, approaching the size of a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

cuckoo and pipit
Juvenile Cuculus cuckoos are very difficult to ID. This is especially true in Shanghai, where almost all cuckoos are passage migrants. If however you are on the breeding grounds and know a little about the host species, then you may be able to attempt an ID. In this photo, taken in July at Balangshan (30.960977, 102.878398) in Sichuan, the juvenile cuckoo that the Rosy Pipit is feeding is most likely Common Cuckoo. The large size of the cuckoo is a clue, but the strongest indicator may be the foster parent. Whereas Himalayan Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo favor small warblers and Indian Cuckoo favors drongos and shrikes, Common Cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of pipits. (Craig Brelsford)

In autumn, juveniles pass through Shanghai. They are silent and nearly impossible to identify to species. If one gets a close look at juvenile Lesser Cuckoo, however, one may appreciate its thrush-like size. If you happen to be on the breeding grounds, then you can attempt an ID according to the species of the foster parent.


Top L: Greater Coucal, Yunnan, March (Kai Pflug). R: Lesser Coucal (adult), Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (Kai Pflug). Bottom L: Lesser Coucal (adult), Cape Nanhui, September (Craig Brelsford). Bottom C: Lesser Coucal (juvenile), Cape Nanhui, November (Craig Brelsford).

Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis is the good guy among the cuckoos of Shanghai. Unlike all the other cuckoos recorded in Shanghai, but like most of the cuckoos in the world, the coucals are not brood parasites. Lesser Coucal, resident in Shanghai, builds a dome nest on the ground.

Lesser Coucal may be the only non-Cuculinae cuckoo in Shanghai, but it shares at least one trait with the brood parasites: It is very unobtrusive. Look for Lesser Coucal in areas of thick vegetation near water, such as the strips of reed bed along the canals at Cape Nanhui. If you find one, count yourself lucky.

Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis occurs south of our region. It is nearly half again as large as Lesser Coucal and has a cleaner and glossier mantle, a thicker bill, and a redder iris.


Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus dicruroides (L) and Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus, brood-parasitic cuckoos from south China. Both occur just south of our region, to Zhejiang. In drongo-cuckoos, independently from but in the same manner as in hawk-cuckoos, evolution created birds that bear an astonishingly close resemblance to species in a distantly related family. L: Yunnan, March (Craig Brelsford). R: Yunnan, March (Kai Pflug).

The Sounds of Shanghai’s Cuckoos, by Craig Brelsford

All cuckoos from the Shanghai area are covered here. I make my recordings with my Olympus DM-650.

Lesser Coucal, Centropus bengalensis, Jiangsu, June (00:06; 1.1 MB)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, May (00:43; 3.3 MB)

Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus, Jiangsu, May (00:39; 2.4 MB)

Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides, Sichuan, June (03:21; 4 MB)

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus, Heilongjiang, June (01:06; 3.4 MB)

Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus, Sichuan, June (00:16; 1 MB)

Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus, classic four-note song plus bubbly flourish, Heilongjiang, June (00:02; 901 KB)

Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, singing and quarreling, Sichuan, June (00:28; 1.2 MB)

Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus, classic double note “boop boop” faintly from a distance, Heilongjiang, May (00:03; 926 KB)

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, classic song plus cough, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (00:03; 913 KB)


Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Cuckoos, pp. 254-9.

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions. Vol. 4, “Sandgrouse to Cuckoos.” Cuculidae (pp. 508-607) by R. B. Payne.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Featured image: Clockwise from L, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus, Jiangsu, October; Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus, Jiangsu, July; and Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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Singing Pechora Pipit in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

Elaine and I noted 112 species over May Day weekend. We did island birding on Lesser Yangshan, coastal birding at Cape Nanhui, and inner-city birding at Zhongshan Park. Highlights were 26 Pechora Pipit, 6 of them singing, plus (Japanese) Yellow Bunting and 2 endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting at Nanhui. Nanhui also gave us 3 Chinese Egret, a rare view of Large Hawk-Cuckoo, endangered Far Eastern Curlew and 4 near-threatened Curlew Sandpiper, and high-value passage migrants such as Chinese Sparrowhawk, Asian Stubtail, Brown-headed Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Chestnut Bunting. Lesser Yangshan yielded 2 Rufous-tailed Robin singing from cover, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Greater Sand Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, 18 near-threatened Grey-tailed Tattler, 2 Broad-billed Sandpiper, and Taiga Flycatcher. Seasonal firsts were numerous and included Little Tern, Dusky Warbler, and Black-browed Reed Warbler at Nanhui and Grey-streaked Flycatcher on Lesser Yangshan. On Sat. 30 April and Sun. 1 May we birded with veteran English birder Michael Grunwell.

Pechora Pipit
Pechora Pipit sparring, Nanhui, 1 May. This is just one instance of aggressive behavior being displayed by Pechoras. We noted 6 Pechoras singing, and we watched a Pechora drive an endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting from a perch. (Craig Brelsford)

On Saturday near Microforest 2 at Nanhui, Michael enjoyed his first views of Pechora Pipit in 26 years while Elaine and I enjoyed our second view in a week of this scarce passage migrant. Those views were just a prelude to the excitement of Sunday. Again at Nanhui, driving along the sea-wall road, we began finding Pechoras. Some of them were singing; two of them were sparring. We decided to make a survey of this scarce passage migrant. Driving slowly from the Holiday Inn north, we scanned the thickly vegetated inner base of the sea wall. Thousands of trees have been planted there recently, giving the Pechoras perches and making them easier to see. We counted 26. Here is the song I recorded of Pechora Pipit (00:27; 1.9 MB):

Pechora Pipit
Another view of Pechora Pipit. Note the fine but distinct streaks on the crown and the pinkish bill. (Craig Brelsford)

Saturday began with a 4 a.m. pickup of Michael and 90-minute drive to Lesser Yangshan. We went first to Accidental Marsh (30.611902, 122.114873). Accidental Marsh is several hectares of newly formed wetland created by the construction of a causeway linking Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island. Besides the waders noted above, we found singing Oriental Reed Warbler, and we rejoiced because for a change we had found a place where the reed-bed habitat of that species is expanding, rather than contracting, as is so often the case on the beleaguered Chinese coast. Another interesting record there was Black-collared Starling, uncommon in the Shanghai region. Moving to Garbage Dump Gully (30.641565, 122.062836), we found Black Drongo and the Rufous-tailed Robin singing from cover. On the half-destroyed Garbage Dump Coastal Plain next to the Gully, we met a lone Pacific Golden Plover.

Michael Grunwell (L) and Craig Brelsford
Michael Grunwell (L) and Craig Brelsford examining shorebirds on Accidental Mudflat, Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 April. (Elaine Du)

We drove back to the mainland and remained at Nanhui the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday. We noticed once again that the Magic Parking Lot (30.882688, 121.972489) and nearby areas are turning into a circus, especially on holiday weekends. Upwards of 300 cars are parked there at midday, and though the Parking Lot is an effective migrant trap, on weekends in good weather birding the Lot is difficult after 9 a.m.

In light of the new popularity of the Lot as well as the continued flattening of the local reed beds, we are looking for new areas to bird. We found a place we are calling South Lock (30.857798, 121.914106). South Lock is the area around the place where the S2 expressway meets the mainland. A sluice gate is nearby, hence the name. On Saturday, trees at South Lock were holding Eastern Crowned Warbler, a species beloved by Michael, and the adjacent ponds and marshes held waders and buntings and gave us our only weekend record of Grey Wagtail. A stop there on Sunday morning gave us our Dusky Warbler. South Lock looks good and because so near the freeway may remain undeveloped. Another new area for us is South Lawn (midpoint at 30.849840, 121.897953), a stretch of grassy land at the inner base of the sea wall north of Luchao (Lúcháo Gǎng [芦潮港]). There we found flocks of Eastern Yellow Wagtail containing members of the nominate race as well as taivana.

Siberian Blue Robin
Siberian Blue Robin (female), Nanhui, 1 May. Note the strong black bill and very pale, pink legs. (Craig Brelsford)

All four of our views of Siberian Blue Robin occurred in the Nanhui microforests. In Shanghai, Sibe Blue offers a good example of how migrant traps work. This species will spend the summer in thick cover in the great forests of northeastern China, the Russian Far East, Sakhalin Island, and Japan. It is a master skulker. Flying up the Nanhui coast, with its dearth of forest cover, a Sibe Blue sees the microforests the same way a tired traveler sees a hotel after a long day on the road. In the Nanhui microforests, now thickly carpeted with daisies and grasses, watch your step! Tired migrants such as Asian Stubtail, Sibe Blue, Rufous-tailed Robin, and Pale Thrush will wait until your foot is inches away before exploding out.

Large Hawk-Cuckoo
Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Nanhui, 1 May. Well-known because of its manic ‘Brain fever!’ call and common in south China, Large Hawk-Cuckoo is rarely recorded in Shanghai. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F5, 1/2500, ISO 1250, hand-held. (Craig Brelsford)

May Day is arguably the height of migration season in the Shanghai region. On sunny, warm days such as Sunday, the stimulation is constant, and exciting moments are many. Here is just one of many anecdotes: Nanhui, Sunday morning. Through Michael’s spotting scope I am enjoying a view of an endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting that he and Elaine found. As I watch, a Pechora Pipit jumps into the circular view and drives the bunting away. An endangered bunting being chased away by a scarce passage migrant! Wow! Then Michael calls out that he has just seen a raptor. The bird disappears, and we get into our rented Buick and drive toward the trees into which it vanished. As we drive, out jumps Large Hawk-Cuckoo! Three rare Shanghai records in the space of five minutes!

The view of Yellow Bunting was team birding at its best. We were driving slowly on the semi-abandoned low road discovered a few months back by Michael. (The starting point of this road, which leads inland from a point behind the Magic Parking Lot, is 30.885592, 121.967369.) As we drove, we were kicking up foraging buntings, mainly Black-faced Bunting. Elaine and I, sitting up front, were the first to notice an anomaly: a yellow-shaded bunting with a mustache and goatee. It had to be Yellow Bunting! The bird disappeared. Michael and Elaine were going for a lifer, so we had to work carefully. We stopped the car and walked up and down the road, six eyeballs searching for the rare migrant. Elaine found it! Michael and I came running. Luckily for us, the bunting had found a feeding area it liked; it was loath to leave the road. Michael was ecstatic as he set up his spotting scope and watched the bunting feed.

Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata
Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata is a rare passage migrant on the Chinese coast. The bunting breeds in Japan and winters mainly in the Philippines. Its numbers have declined much over the years. The species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. (Craig Brelsford)

On Thurs. 28 April, Elaine and I did a quick walk-through at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park. The park is more than a hundred years old, has many tall trees, and offers some of the best mid-sized urban-park birding in Earth’s largest city. Zhongshan holds sentimental value for me because it is where I ticked Elaine as a lifer (i.e., I met her there).

Our visit of less than two hours brought Elaine and me six passage migrants: Yellow-browed Warbler, Sakhalin/Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Tristram’s Bunting. A seventh, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, was reported by another birder.

The focal point at Zhongshan is the little central pond (31.224111, 121.414194). On Thursday all 3 Narcissus Flycatcher were noted there, among them a female, as well as our Eastern Crowned Warbler and Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. A tiny island in the center of the pond is almost cat-free (some cats do make the jump) and contains several large trees. Thanks to the nearly daily presence there of bird photographer Wāng Jìn Róng (汪进荣), the central pond is an information clearinghouse; Mr. Wang and his buddies are always eager to tell you what they have been seeing lately.


Pacific Golden Plover
Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Yangshan Island, 30 April. (Craig Brelsford)
Chinese Egret
Chinese Egret, Cape Nanhui, 30 April. (Craig Brelsford)
Chestnut Bunting
Chestnut Bunting, Cape Nanhui, 1 May. This colorful bunting breeds in the Russian Far East and northeastern China. Emberiza rutila winters in south China and Southeast Asia and is an uncommon passage migrant in Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)
Microforest, Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May. Daisies grace the forest floor, the vegetation is thick, the leaves have sprouted, and birds are many. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: Pechora Pipit at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
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