In celebration of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo

On 8 June 2019 “Team Cuckoo” caught and fitted a tag to the fifth and final cuckoo during an expedition to Khurkh in northeast Mongolia as part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project

On 1 October 2020 we received what were most likely the last transmissions from his tag, from southern Yemen. 

Tuvshi, from the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, releasing the fifth cuckoo, soon to be named “Онон” (Onon), on 8 June 2019 at Khurkh.

This cuckoo, named “Онон” (Onon) by local schoolchildren after the local river, had just crossed the Arabian Sea from India.  To refuel after his marathon, almost certainly non-stop, flight of more than 3,500km in 64 hours, he had chosen an area that had recently experienced rain, good conditions for the emergence of caterpillars, seemingly ideal for a migrating cuckoo.  Yet just a few days after having arrived, the transmissions from his tag reduced in frequency and both the battery charge and temperature of the tag dropped rapidly, sounding alarm bells.  We waited for several days, desperately hoping for more signals, but sadly, as of today – 15th October 2020 – no further signals have been forthcoming and we must assume that Onon died in southern Yemen sometime between 27 September and 1 October.

Onon’s final resting place appears to be c100km WNW of Aden in southern Yemen.

Onon was a remarkable cuckoo.  After being fitted with his tag, he travelled almost 40,000km in 16 months, making 33 border crossings involving 17 countries, including three crossings of the Arabian Sea.  

Onon’s migration from June 2019 to October 2020 (outward tracks from Mongolia to Africa in darker green and the return from Africa to Mongolia in light green).

More than that, he touched millions of people in countries along his route and beyond, many of whom learned about these birds’ inter-continental migrations for the first time.  After his record-breaking journey in spring 2020 of >7,200km in seven days from Somalia to India, he attracted considerable mainstream media attention, with articles in The Guardian and The Times of India, as well as being featured on BBC Breakfast TV and on BBC Radio 4.

The Times of India  

The Guardian

BBC Breakfast TV

Onon achieved something of a cult status in India after social media influencer Parveen Kaswan (@ParveenKaswan), with almost a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, celebrated Onon’s crossing of the Arabian Sea.  For several days, we held an online “Q&A session” with new followers asking great questions about how these birds make these crossings, what they eat, how they sleep and what people can do to help them.  One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, even visited Onon’s position to report on the condition of the habitat near Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh.

Rajesh Ghotikar checking out ONON’s location near Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.

Reaching more people, especially outside conservation and birding circles, was one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project and, thanks to Onon, I think we can say this aim has been achieved.  If just one person who was touched by Onon’s incredible migration goes on to a position of influence and supports the conservation of migratory birds and the habitats they need, Onon’s life will have been incredibly meaningful.

Of course, Onon is just one of many thousands of Common Cuckoos making similar journeys at the same time every year and, although we now mourn the loss of a special bird we had the privilege of following for 16 months, his legacy is that we now know more about the incredible journeys made by these birds and the places they need along the way.  With this knowledge, all of us who have been enthralled and inspired by Onon should use every opportunity to champion the protection of migratory birds and the habitats they need.  

Next year in spring, on hearing their first cuckoo of the year, I am sure there will be many many thousands of people who will recall the life of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo indeed.

Birding Beijing, October 2020

Onon’s journey at a glance (33 border crossings involving 17 countries)

Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bhutan –  Nepal – India – Pakistan – Oman – Saudi Arabia – Eritrea – Ethiopia – Kenya – Tanzania – Malawi – Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – China – Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bangladesh – India – Pakistan – India – Yemen.

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Birding Beijing would like to thank the partners of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project – the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg) and the British Trust for Ornithology (especially Chris Hewson) –  the supporters who made it possible (especially the Oriental Bird Club, Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley – who, as well as helping with the tagging, also heroically updated the Google Map with all the latest movements), the local schools at Khurkh and Binder, to Richard Porter for facilitating the contact with schools on Socotra, and to everyone who has followed and/or supported the project in any way.   Thank you.

Update: reactions in the media:

ONON was featured on BBC Radio 4’s 6 o’clock news on 15 October 2020.

Social media:

 

4 thoughts on “In celebration of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo”

  1. So sad about Onion but he travelled amazing distances covering so many countries and had such a huge worldwide following getting so many people interested in conservation work and the knowledge of where these Cuckoos overwinter. It was fantastic following his journeys as it was with previous satellite tagged cuckoos like Flappy

    1. Thank you Eleanor for following and supporting both the Mongolian and Beijing Cuckoos. Onon certainly reached many people who hadn’t previously been aware of the marathon journeys of migratory birds. That is an incredible legacy. And we can take comfort that, almost certainly, many of his offspring will be making the same journey for many years to come. Terry

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