Pathfinding in Paradise

a Tale of Long-tailed Cuckoos

Craig Robertson

October is an important month for bird migration. Northern hemisphere birds do it to escape the winter; in the southern hemisphere birds head for their summer breeding grounds. Most species of cuckoo are migratory and some of them fly long distances. Australia has a dozen or so species of cuckoo and all have seasonal movements.

Museum Victoria: Long-tailed Cuckoo Skins The Long-tailed Cuckoo Urodynamys taitensis (or Long-tailed Koel) is the greatest traveller of the southern hemisphere cuckoos. It is added to the Australian bird list mainly owing to its seasonal presence on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands.

Museum Victoria has several specimens of this species, mostly from New Zealand.Some of the specimens are over a hundred years old. Not unusually one of the skins is from John Gould, acquired around 1860.

There is another from James Cockerell, a pioneering nineteenth century collector who gained his specimen in the Solomon Islands in 1879. Others are of more recent origin. They almost radiate with a sense of history, and perhaps some mystery too.

Long-tailed Cuckoos spend the winter months in the more tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean, anywhere from Palau to Pitcairn Island, but mainly in Polynesia. Their spring migration to their breeding grounds takes them to New Zealand and its surrounding islands.

One of the nearest migration routes there is from the Cook Islands, over two and a half thousand kilometres of open ocean. Another even longer route is from French Polynesia, the islands around Tahiti, more than 3000 kilometres over open ocean.

It is in this group that it is thought the New Zealand Maoris had their ancestral home, the paradisial land of Hawaiki.

Where cuckoo
vanishes -
an island.


Museum Victoria: Long-tailed Cuckoo Mounts

Some students of Polynesian voyaging have theorised that the original discovery of New Zealand was made by following cuckoo migration. But it is a controversial idea. Maori mythology is replete with stories of ancestral voyaging, notably by the hero Kupe. The mythology also acknowledges the existence and character of the Long-tailed Cuckoo, "a lazy parent". But there does not appear to be any definitive link between them and the voyaging.

Nevertheless, it is a persuasive idea. Long-tailed cuckoos are land birds. Individual Pacific Islands hold relatively few bird species, especially land birds. However, unpopulated New Zealand was heavily forested, with a bountiful range of host species which cuckoos could parasitize; the result - lots of cuckoos. Their presence and movements in the islands would have been prominent. Also they migrate over a period of two or three weeks, usually in October. They fly day and night, low over the ocean, calling loudly to each other as they go in a way that can be heard on the water in the dark.

Beyond waves,
reaching far, the
cuckoo's song.


A remarkable Australian, Harold Gatty, was probably the most prominent proponent of the bird migration theory. As a young man he had been a seaman and had gained a thorough knowledge of navigation. He emigrated to the United States and rose to fame in 1931 as the navigator on a historic flight around the world in eight days. Along with Wiley Post the pilot, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York and a medal by President Herbert Hoover. He was so successful in air navigation the Americans changed a citizenship requirement so he could serve with the US forces during World War II. He served with Macarthur's headquarters in the South Pacific.

In 1943 Gatty published The Raft Book, a survival guide for airmen at sea. It was standard issue in the liferafts aboard all Allied aircraft in the Pacific. The book contains a wealth of information on navigation at sea, including Gatty's ideas about how to navigate using the techniques of "the greatest pathfinders in history", the Polynesians. As Gatty says, they would have observed the cuckoo migrations for thousands of years, understood it long before Europeans, understood there must be land where the birds were seen to go to, and then return from. They were an adventuous people and brave sailors in canoes that they said "dared the clouds of heaven".

After the war Gatty settled in Fiji, founding Fiji Airways. He continued to write about navigation without compasses and modern technology, contributing to a fascinating literature about long distance sailing in the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. He wrote much about the stars of course, and sea-birds, the patterns of waves and swells, the movements of clouds and other phenomena observable at sea. But these are mainly useful when you already know where you want to go.

Just imagine you are far out from any known land at night, the infinite starry sky above and a seemingly infinite world of water around you, your next landfall an unknown distance away - and nothing but a bunch of cuckoos to guide you on your way. Brave sailors indeed.

Whatever the truth about Maori migration, it is certain that the adult birds in the Museum Victoria collection would have made great voyages across the South Pacific.

Note: an abbreviated version of this article was originally published in October 2011 as a blog on the Museum Victoria website; the full text is given here.

Further reading:

Harold Gatty Nature is Your Guide: how to find your way on land and sea (Collins, London, 1958)
David Lewis We, the Navigators: the ancient art of landfinding in the Pacific (ANU Press, Canberra, 1972)
Basho: On Love and Barley - Haiku of Basho (Penguin, 1985)

For the sceptical view:

Andrew Sharp Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963)

Back to home page

© Copyright Craig Robertson, 2020, except where otherwise attributed.

Information on this page may be accessed and read for personal use. The material may not be copied or communicated to other parties without permission.