British scientists working with local conservationists to track the fortunes of Cuckoos in Mongolia

For the last eight years, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has been using satellite tags to uncover the mystery surrounding the migration of Cuckoos breeding in Britain in order to understand, and inform measures to help reverse, their precipitous decline.  Now, for the first time, they are sharing their knowledge and expertise to help do the same in Mongolia.

Oriental Cuckoo, Nomad by Terry Townsend

The Mongolian Cuckoo Project is a partnership between BTO and the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre of Mongolia (WSCC), the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Birding Beijing. The project builds on the success of 2016’s Beijing Cuckoo Project, which saw five birds fitted with satellite tags in the Chinese capital. One of these, named Flappy McFlapperson by pupils at a school in Beijing, gathered a cult following as she migrated from China to breeding grounds in Mongolia, then back through China on her way to wintering grounds in south-east Africa, documenting the migration of Asian cuckoos for the first time.

The aim of the Mongolian project is two-fold.  First to gather new scientific data about the migration of Common Cuckoos from East Asia, already established by the Beijing project as one of the longest migrations of any land bird.  And second, to engage local school children, the public in Mongolia and people throughout Asia and the world about the wonders of bird migration, leading to greater awareness and concern for migratory birds and their habitats.

Dr Chris Hewson, Lead Scientist on the Cuckoo project at the BTO and an expert on Cuckoo migration, said, “Over the last few years we have learned so much from the Cuckoos we have tagged. Already, we are learning more from this project; two of the four Common Cuckoos we tagged in northern Mongolia have started their autumn migration and whilst one has moved south-east to China, one has started to move west towards Ulaanbaatar. This presents a great opportunity to study the diversity of Cuckoo migration from Mongolia, which we hope to link to genetics via DNA samples.”

He added, “Migratory birds make astonishing journeys, requiring staggering endurance and navigational skills; their journeys are perilous even in perfect conditions – following the migrations of these birds in close to real time is a huge privilege and one that we are delighted to be able to share with the public.”

Dr Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the WSCC, said, “It is very exciting to be on the brink of discovering where this amazing bird goes when it is not in Mongolia. Understanding how their breeding, wintering and stopover areas are linked will be critical for their survival.”

Terry Townshend of Birding Beijing said: “Due to its distinctive song, the Common Cuckoo is well-known across Eurasia and is an ideal ‘ambassador’ for migratory birds.  Technology is now revealing the secrets of their incredible journeys, inspiring millions of people about migratory birds and generating greater awareness about the habitats they need.”

Simon Roddis of OBC commented, “OBC is delighted to support the Mongolian Cuckoo Project, which aligns extremely well with our aims. Engaging local communities and the global public in scientific discovery about the region’s birds is a path which has already proved successful in the region.”

Whilst four of the five birds fitted with tags were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus), one was of a different species – the Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus). This bird is believed the first of its kind to be fitted with a tag.

Chris added, “The migration of the Oriental Cuckoo has yet to be documented, so the chance to tag this bird was too good to miss. Almost immediately after release it headed north into Russia, settling in a breeding territory a thousand miles away in the Krasnoyarsk region of central Siberia.”
The Oriental Cuckoo – appropriately named ‘Nomad’ by local school children – has already turned south after spending just four weeks on its breeding territory, heading to an as yet unknown wintering location.

The four Common Cuckoos have been given names by local schools in Mongolia – ‘Khurkh’ after the village closest to the capture site, ‘Namjaa’ – a story teller with a beautiful voice in Mongolian folklore, ’Bayan’, meaning rich and prosperous and referring to the rich fertility of the riverine capture site, and ‘Onon’ – a river flowing into a nearby national park. All of these birds’ journeys can be followed on the BTO and Birding Beijing websites.

The running costs for the project are £600 per year and anyone can help support this project by donating here