Cuckoos that fly from Beijing to Africa

Society & Culture

A Q&A with the founder of a project that tracks migratory birds that set out from northern China and travel the world.

Terry Townshend is a British bird enthusiast living and working in Beijing. With a professional background in environmental law, Terry has been the driving force behind a number of projects to study and create awareness about bird life in China. He is the creator of the Birding Beijing website, and in 2015, he launched a project to follow the migration of swifts from Beijing. Some of the birds that were tracked ended up in South Africa and Namibia (you can hear more about this project on this Sinica Podcast).

This year, Terry and his group decided to follow the winter movements of several Eurasian cuckoos that spent their summers in Beijing.

Jeremy: What is the Beijing Cuckoo Project?

Terry: The Beijing Cuckoo Project is a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, the China Birdwatching Society (CBS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing to track the migration of Eurasian cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) in Beijing. In late May 2016, a team of scientists and local volunteers, led by the BTO’s Chris Hewson, deployed ultra-lightweight satellite tags onto five cuckoos in the Beijing area. Local schoolchildren gave names to the cuckoos and have been following their progress as part of a specially designed “environmental curriculum.”

Special webpages allow members of the public to follow their progress, too, providing information about cuckoos, maps showing their latest positions, the routes taken and background about the project. Here are the profiles of “The Famous Five”:

Flappy McFlapperson, a female tagged at Cuihu National Urban Wetland Park, Beijing, and named by Dulwich International School. Currently in Uttar Pradesh, northern India.

Skybomb Bolt, a male tagged at Hanshiqiao Wetland Park, Beijing, and named by Dulwich International School.

子规 (Zǐguī), a male tagged at Yeyahu National Wetland Reserve, Beijing, and named by members of the China Birdwatching Society. Zigui is a traditional name for the cuckoo in Chinese.

梦之娟 (Mèng zhī juān), another male tagged at Yeyahu National Wetland Reserve and named by Yanqing 2nd Middle School. The name can be roughly translated as “Dream Bird.” This cuckoo is currently in Bangladesh.

Hope, a female also tagged at Yeyahu National Wetland Reserve. She traveled north to Russia, a little east of Lake Baikal, for the summer.

The aims of the project are to discover the Beijing cuckoos’ currently unknown migration route and winter quarters, engage the Chinese public about the wonders of bird migration with a view to promoting conservation, enthuse Chinese schoolchildren about the project, and strengthen links between Chinese and international bird conservation organizations.

The Beijing Cuckoo Project is providing significant benefits to science, conservation, public engagement and environmental education in China, including establishing the currently unknown migration route and wintering areas of Beijing cuckoos and engaging the Chinese public.

Jeremy: How are you tracking the cuckoos?

Terry: We have fitted ultra-lightweight transmitters to the cuckoos using a special harness (like a backpack). The transmitters, manufactured by Microwave Telemetry, Inc. in the U.S., weigh just 4.5 grams. The transmitters are powered by a tiny solar panel and send signals every day that are picked up by a network of satellites, analyzed by clever software and sent to a special database, from where we can determine the latest positions.

Jeremy: What is different about this project compared with your tracking of the migrations of the Beijing swifts?

Terry: Because swifts are too small to carry transmitters, we used geolocators that store information but do not transmit. Therefore, after fitting the geolocators on swifts at the Summer Palace, we had to wait a year to recapture the same swifts in order to be able to download the data to discover where they had been and how they got there. Cuckoos are larger and can therefore carry transmitters, allowing us to track them in near real-time.

Jeremy: Have all the cuckoos arrived in Africa?

Terry: No. Skybomb Bolt arrived in Africa on October 30 after a nonstop flight of 3,700 kilometers from central India to Somalia. Flappy McFlapperson reached landfall in Oman on November 4 after a 2,000-kilometer nonstop flight from northern India, before moving on through Yemen to Somalia. The third active cuckoo, Meng Zhi Juan, is poised on the west coast of Africa, and we expect him to make his sea crossing anytime now.

Jeremy: How did you name them?

Terry: The cuckoos were named by Beijing schools (Dulwich International School and Yanqing 2nd Middle School), the China Birdwatching Society and the Guangzhou Youth Environmental Summer Camp.

Jeremy: How successful has the Beijing Cuckoo Project been at stimulating public interest and concern about wildlife and birds in particular?

Terry: With strong local, national and international media coverage, including in China, India, Korea and the U.S., the project has far exceeded our expectations in terms of reach. Our primary aim when designing the project was to combine scientific discovery with public engagement. We firmly believe that, to be more effective, conservationists and scientists need to do much better at engaging the public. By involving schools in naming the birds and using social media in China and overseas, we have been able to engage, and hopefully enthuse, many more people than would have been possible through a traditional scientific project.

Jeremy: What’s the next project you have planned?

Terry: We plan to tag more cuckoos, in different parts of China, in 2017 and are exploring other potential projects involving different species. Technology is opening up a whole new era of scientific discovery and the potential for discovery is vast; we are just scratching the surface. There are many more equally, if not more, amazing facts waiting to be discovered about our birds and other wildlife…and if we can involve and inspire the public as we make these discoveries, we will have a greater chance of encouraging policymakers to protect these birds and their habitats for future generations.

If you would like to support the Beijing Cuckoo Project, please visit: