The Common cuckoo is a medium-sized slender bird found throughout Europe and Asia. It has a greyish body and long tail, similar to a sparrowhawk in flight. There is a rufous color morph, which occurs occasionally in adult females but more often in juveniles. Common cuckoos in their first autumn have variable plumage. Some have strongly-barred chestnut-brown upperparts, while others are plain grey.
Rufous-brown birds have heavily barred upperparts with some feathers edged with creamy-white. All have whitish edges to the upper wing-coverts and primaries (flight feathers). The secondaries and greater coverts have chestnut bars or spots. The most obvious identification features of juvenile Common cuckoos are the white nape patch and white feather fringes.
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Common cuckoos are widespread summer migrants to Europe and Asia, and winter in Africa.
These birds inhabit forests and woodlands, grasslands, meadows, shrubland, heathland, reedbeds, open moorlands, and cultivated areas.
The family Cuculidae is worldwide, found in temperate and tropical regions but is most diverse in the Old World tropics. Cuculids tend to be shy inhabitants of thick vegetation, more often heard than seen. Many species are named for the sounds they make—e.g., brain-fever bird (a hawk cuckoo, Cuculus varius), koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), and cuckoo itself, the latter two names being imitations of the bird’s song.
Cuculids range in length from about 16 cm (6.5 inches) in the glossy cuckoos (Chrysococcyx and Chalcites) to about 90 cm (36 inches) in the larger ground cuckoos. Most are coloured in drab grays and browns, but a few have striking patches of rufous (reddish) or white, and the glossy cuckoos are largely or partially shining emerald green. Some of the tropical cuckoos have strongly iridescent bluish plumage on their backs and wings. With the exception of a few strongly migratory species, most cuckoos are short-winged. All have long (sometimes extremely long), graduated tails, usually with the individual feathers tipped with white. The legs vary from medium to rather long (in the terrestrial forms) and the feet are zygodactyl; i.e., the outer toe is reversed, pointing backward. The bill is rather stout and somewhat downcurved.
The attribute for which the cuckoos are best known is the habit of brood parasitism, found in all of the Cuculinae and three species of Phaenicophaeinae. It consists of laying the eggs singly in the nests of certain other bird species to be incubated by the foster parents, who rear the young cuckoo. Among the 47 species of cuculines, various adaptations enhance the survival of the young cuckoo: egg mimicry, in which the cuckoo egg resembles that of the host, thus minimizing rejection by the host; removal of one or more host eggs by the adult cuckoo, reducing both the competition from host nestlings and the danger of recognition by the host that an egg has been added to the nest; and nest-mate ejection, in which the young cuckoo heaves from the nest the host’s eggs and nestlings. Some species of Cuculus resemble certain bird-eating hawks (Accipiter) in appearance and mannerisms, apparently frightening the potential host and allowing the cuckoo to approach the nest unmolested.
Habits and Lifestyle
Common cuckoos are generally shy birds that lead a solitary lifestyle; however, during the breeding season, they become noisy and are often heard singing their far-carrying song while claiming their territories and attracting mates. The male’s song sounds like ‘goo-ko’ and is usually given from an open perch. The female has a loud bubbling call. Common cuckoos are active during the day spending many hours in search of food.
They are especially fond of noxious hairy types of caterpillars typically avoided by other birds. Cuckoos are unusual among birds in processing their prey prior to swallowing; they will rub it back and forth on hard objects such as branches and then crush it with special bony plates in the back of the mouth.
Diet and Nutrition
Common cuckoos are carnivores (insectivores) and feed on various insects, preferring hairy caterpillars, which are distasteful to many birds. They also occasionally eat eggs and chicks of small birds.
Common cuckoos start singing early in the year in April. The male typically sings with intervals of 1-1.5 seconds, in groups of 10-20 with a rest of a few seconds between groups. The wings are drooped when calling intensely and when in the vicinity of a potential female, the male often wags its tail from side to side or the body may pivot from side to side. Common cuckoos are brood parasites which means that they don’t build nests but lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. A female may visit up to 50 nests during a breeding season.
She will remove one of the host’s eggs from the nest and then lay her own. The eggs of Common cuckoos are spotted or solid in color, depending upon the color of the host’s egg. The naked, altricial cuckoo chick hatches after 11-13 days. It is a much larger bird than its hosts and needs to monopolize the food supplied by the parents. The chick will roll the other eggs out of the nest by pushing them with its back over the edge. If the host’s eggs hatch before the cuckoo’s, the cuckoo chick will push the other chicks out of the nest in a similar way. The Common cuckoo chick usually leaves the nest 2-3 weeks after hatching and will first breed at the age of 2 years.
Common cuckoos don’t face any major threats at present.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Common cuckoo is 40,000,000-74,999,999 mature individuals. The European population of the species consists of 5,960,000-10,800,000 breeding males, which equates to 11,900,000-21,500,000 mature individuals. Currently, the Common cuckoo is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing.
Fun Facts for Kids
- The Common cuckoo belongs to the family of birds that also includes roadrunners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals, and anis.
- The English word “cuckoo” comes from the Old French “cucu”.
- The cuckoo family gets its English and scientific names from the call of the male Common cuckoo, which is also familiar from cuckoo clocks.
- During the breeding season, Common cuckoos often settle on an open perch with drooped wings and raised tail.
- The feathers of the cuckoos are generally soft, and often become waterlogged in heavy rain. Cuckoos often sun themselves after rain, and some even hold their wings open in the manner of a vulture or cormorant while drying.
- Cuckoos have played a role in human culture for thousands of years, appearing in Greek mythology as sacred to the goddess Hera. In Europe, for example, the cuckoo is associated with spring, and in Japan, the bird symbolises unrequited love.