Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Cuculiformes
Family: Cuculidae
Genus: Cuculus
Species: C. canorus
Binomial name
Cuculus canorus
Linnaeus, 1758

The Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) (formerly European Cuckoo) is a member of the cuckoo order of birds, Cuculiformes, which includes the roadrunners, the anis and the coucals.

This species is a widespread summer migrant to Europe and Asia, and winters in Africa. It is a brood parasite, which means it lays eggs in the nests of other bird species, particularly of Dunnocks, Meadow Pipits, and Eurasian Reed Warblers.



The Common Cuckoo (formerly European Cuckoo) is a member of the cuckoo order of birds, the Cuculiformes, which also includes the roadrunners, the anis and the coucals.[1] The species' binomial name is derived from the Latin cuculus (the cuckoo) and canorus (melodious; from canere, meaning to sing).[2] The cuckoo family gets its common name and genus name by onomatopoeia for the call of the male Common Cuckoo.[3] The English word "cuckoo" comes from the Old French cucu and it first appears about 1240[4] in the poem Sumer Is Icumen In - "Summer has come in / Loudly sing, Cuckoo!" in modern English.

There are four subspecies worldwide:[5]

Lifespan and demography

Although the Common Cuckoo's global population appears to be declining, it is classified of being of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It is estimated that the species numbers between 25 million and 100 million individuals worldwide, with around 12.6 million to 25.8 million of those birds breeding in Europe.[1] The maximum recorded lifespan of a Common Cuckoo in the United Kingdom is 6 years, 11 months and 2 days.[2]


The Common Cuckoo is 32–34 centimetres (13–13 in) long from bill to tail (with a tail of 13–15 centimetres (5.1–5.9 in) and a wingspan of 55–60 centimetres (22–24 in).[3] The legs are short.[6] It is greyish with a slender body and long tail and can be mistaken for a falcon in flight, where the wingbeats are regular. During the breeding season, Common Cuckoos often settle on an open perch with drooped wings and raised tail.[6] There is a rufous colour phase, which occurs occasionally in adult females but more often in juveniles.[3]

All adult males are slate-grey; the grey throat extends well down the bird's breast with a sharp demarcation to the barred underparts.[7] The iris, orbital ring, the base of the bill and feet are yellow.[6] Grey adult females have a pinkish-buff or buff background to the barring and neck sides, and sometimes small rufous spots on the median and greater coverts and the outer webs of the secondary feathers.[7]

Common Cuckoo in flight

Rufous phase adult females have reddish-brown upperparts with dark grey or black bars. The black upperpart bars are narrower than the rufous bars, as opposed to rufous juvenile birds, where the black bars are broader.[7]

Common Cuckoos in their first autumn have variable plumage. Some are 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. The secondaries and greater coverts have chestnut bars or spots. In spring, birds hatched in the previous year may retain some barred secondaries and wing-coverts.[7] The most obvious identification features of juvenile Common Cuckoos are the white nape patch and white feather fringes.[6]

Common Cuckoos moult twice a year: a partial moult in summer and a complete moult in winter.[7] Males weigh around 130 grams (4.6 oz) and females 110 grams (3.9 oz).[2] The Common Cuckoo looks very similar to the Oriental Cuckoo, which is slightly shorter-winged on average.[7]

A study using stuffed bird models found that small birds are less likely to approach Common Cuckoos that have barred underparts similar to the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a predatory bird. Eurasian Reed Warblers were found more aggressive to cuckoos that looked less hawk-like, meaning that the resemblance to the hawk helps the cuckoo to access the nests of potential hosts.[8]

The male's call, is usually given from an open perch, goo-ko. During the breeding season the male typically gives this call with intervals of 1–1.5 seconds, in groups of 10–20 with a rest of a few seconds between groups. The female has a loud bubbling call.[3]

Distribution and habitat

Essentially a bird of open land, the Common Cuckoo is a widespread summer migrant to Europe and Asia, and winters in Africa. Birds arrive in Europe in April and leave in September.[6]

The Common Cuckoo has also occurred as a vagrant in countries including Barbados, the United States of America, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Indonesia, Palau, Seychelles, Taiwan and China.[1]


Food and feeding

The Common Cuckoo's diet consists of insects, with hairy caterpillars, which are distasteful to many birds, being a speciality of preference. It also occasionally eats eggs and chicks.


This Eurasian Reed Warbler is raising a Common Cuckoo.

The Common Cuckoo is a brood parasite; it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. At the appropriate moment, the hen cuckoo flies down to the host's nest, pushes one egg out, lays an egg and flies off. The whole process takes about 10 seconds. A female may visit up to 50 nests during a breeding season. Common Cuckoos first breed at two years old.[2]


More than 100 host species have been recorded: Meadow Pipit, Dunnock and Eurasian Reed Warbler are the most common hosts in northern Europe; Garden Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and European Robin in central Europe; Brambling and Common Redstart in Finland; and Great Reed Warbler in Hungary.[3]

Female Common Cuckoos are divided into gentes - populations favouring a particular host species' nest and laying eggs that match those of that species in colour and pattern. Evidence from mitochondrial DNA analyses suggest that each gens may have multiple independent origins due to parasitism of specific hosts by different ancestors. [9] One hypothesis for the inheritance of egg appearance mimicry is that this trait is inherited from the female only, suggesting that it is carried on the sex-determining W chromosome (females are WZ, males ZZ). A genetic analysis of gentes supports this proposal by finding significant differentiation in mitochondrial DNA, but not in microsatellite DNA. [9] A second proposal for the inheritance of this trait is that the genes controlling egg characteristics are carried on autosomes rather than just the W chromosome. Another genetic analysis of sympatric gentes supports this second proposal by finding significant genetic differentiation in both microsatellite DNA and mitochondrial DNA. [10] Considering the tendency for Common Cuckoo males to mate with multiple females and produce offspring raised by more than one host species, it appears as though males do not contribute to the maintenance of Common Cuckoo gentes. However, it was found that only nine percent of offspring were raised outside of their father's presumed host species. [10] Therefore, both males and females may contribute to the maintenance of Common Cuckoo egg mimicry polymorphism.[9][10] It is notable that most non-parasitic cuckoo species lay white eggs, like most non-passerines other than ground-nesters.

As the Common Cuckoo evolves to lay eggs that better imitate the host's eggs, the host species adapts and is more able to distinguish the cuckoo egg. A study of 248 Common Cuckoo and host eggs demonstrated that female cuckoos that parasitised Common Redstart nests laid eggs that matched better than those that targeted Dunnocks. Spectroscopy was used to model how the host species saw the cuckoo eggs. Cuckoos that target Dunnock nests lay white, brown-speckled eggs, in contrast to the Dunnock's own blue eggs. The theory suggests that Common Redstarts have been parasitised by Common Cuckoos for longer, and so have evolved to be better than the Dunnocks at noticing the cuckoo eggs.[11]

Studies were made of 90 Great Reed Warbler nests in central Hungary. There was an "unusually high" frequency of Common Cuckoo parasitism, with 64 % of the nests parasitised. Of the nests targeted by cuckoos, 64 % contained one cuckoo egg, 23 % had two, 10 % had three and 3 % had four Common Cuckoo eggs. In total, 58 % of the Common Cuckoo eggs were laid in nests that were multiply parasitised. When laying eggs in nests already parasitised, the female cuckoos removed one egg at random, showing no discrimination between the Great Reed Warbler eggs and those of other cuckoos.[12]

It was found that nests close to cuckoo perches were most vulnerable: multiple parasitised nests were closest to the vantage points, and unparasitised nests were farthest away. Nearly all the nests "in close vicinity" to the vantage points were parasitised. More visible nests were more likely to be selected by the Common Cuckoos. Female cuckoos use their vantage points to watch for potential hosts and find it easier to locate the more visible nests while they are egg-laying.[13]

The Great Reed Warblers' responses to the Common Cuckoo eggs varied: 66 % accepted the egg(s); 12 % ejected them; 20 % abandoned the nests entirely; 2 % buried the eggs. 28 % of the cuckoo eggs were described as "almost perfect" in their mimesis of the host eggs, and the warblers rejected "poorly mimetic" cuckoo eggs more often. The degree of mimicry made it difficult for both the Great Reed Warblers and the observers to tell the eggs apart.[12]

The egg measures 22 by 17 millimetres (0.87 × 0.67 in) and weighs 3.2 grams (0.11 oz), of which 7 % is shell.[2] Research has shown that the female Common Cuckoo is able to keep its egg inside its body for an extra 24 hours before laying it in a host's nest. This means the cuckoo chick can hatch before the host's chicks do, and it can eject the unhatched eggs from the nest. Scientists incubated Common Cuckoo eggs for 24 hours at the bird's body temperature of 40 °C (104 °F), and examined the embryos, which were found "much more advanced" than those of other species studied. The idea of 'internal incubation' was first put forward in 1802 and 18th and 19th Century egg collectors had reported finding that cuckoo embryos were more advanced than those of the host species.[14]


Chick of Common Cuckoo in nest of Tree Pipit

The naked, altricial chick hatches after 11–13 days.[2] It methodically evicts all host progeny from host nests. It is a much larger bird than its hosts, and needs to monopolise 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. At 14 days old, the Common Cuckoo chick is about three times the size of an adult Eurasian Reed Warbler.

Species whose broods are parasitised by the Common Cuckoo have evolved to discriminate against cuckoo eggs but not chicks.[15] Experiments have shown that Common Cuckoo chicks persuade their host parents to feed them by making a rapid begging call that sounds "remarkably like a whole brood of host chicks." The researchers suggested that "the cuckoo needs vocal trickery to stimulate adequate care to compensate for the fact that it presents a visual stimulus of just one gape."[16]

Common Cuckoo chicks fledge about 17–21 days after hatching,[2] compared to 12–13 days for Eurasian Reed Warblers.[17] If the hen cuckoo is out-of-phase with a clutch of Eurasian Reed Warbler eggs, she will eat them all so that the hosts are forced to start another brood.

The Common Cuckoo's behaviour was firstly observed and described by Aristotle and the combination of behaviour and anatomical adaptation by Edward Jenner, who was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1788 for this work. It was first documented on film in 1922 by Edgar Chance and Oliver G Pike, in their film 'The Cuckoo's Secret'.[18]

A study in Japan found that young Common Cuckoos probably acquire species-specific feather lice from body-to-body contact with other cuckoos between the time of leaving the nest and returning to the breeding area in spring. A total of 21 nestlings were examined shortly before they left their hosts' nests and none carried feather lice. However, young birds returning to Japan for the first time were found just as likely as older individuals to be lousy.[19]

In culture

In Europe, hearing the call of the Common Cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring. Many local legends and traditions are based on this. In Scotland, a number of Gowk Stones exist, sometimes associated with the arrival of the first cuckoo of spring. "Gowk" is an old name for the Common Cuckoo in northern Britain,[4] derived from a harsh repeated "gowk" call the bird makes when excited.[3]

The well-known cuckoo clock features a mechanical bird and is fitted with bellows and pipes that imitate the call of the Common Cuckoo.


  1. ^ a b c BirdLife International. "Cuculus canorus". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.1.. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Retrieved 12 August 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Robinson, R. A. (2005). "Cuckoo Cuculus canorus". BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland (BTO Research Report 407). British Trust for Ornithology. Retrieved 12 August 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f The Birds of the Western Palearctic [Abridged]. OUP. 1997. ISBN 019854099X. 
  4. ^ a b Lockwood, W B (1993). The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names. OUP. ISBN 978-0198661962. 
  5. ^ "Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)". IBC Bird Collection. Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 20 August 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Mullarney, Killian; Svensson, Lars; Zetterstrom, Dan; Grant, Peter (1999). Collins Bird Guide. London: HarperCollins. pp. 204–205. ISBN 0-00-219728-6. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Baker, Kevin (1993). Identification Guide to European Non-Passerines (BTO Guide 24). Thetford: British Trust for Ornithology. pp. 273–275. ISBN 0-903793-18-0. 
  8. ^ Welbergen, J.; Davies, N. B. (2011). "A parasite in wolf's clothing: hawk mimicry reduces mobbing of cuckoos by hosts". Behavioral Ecology 22 (3): 574–579. doi:10.1093/beheco/arr008. 
  9. ^ a b c Gibbs, H.L.; M.D. Sorenson, K. Marchetti, M.D. Brooke, N.B. Davies, and H. Nakamura (2000). "Genetic evidence for female host-specific races of the common cuckoo". Nature 407: 183–186. 
  10. ^ a b c Fossoy, F.; A. Antonov, A. Moksnes, E. Roskfaft, J.R. Vikan, A.P. Moller, J.A. Shykoff, and B.G. Stokke (2011). "Genetic differentiation among sympatric cuckoohost races: males matter". Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 278: 1639–1645. 
  11. ^ Emma Brennand (24 March 2011). "Cuckoo in egg pattern 'arms race'". BBC News. Retrieved 22 August 2011. 
  12. ^ a b Moskát, C.; Honza, M. (2002). "European Cuckoo Cuculus canorus parasitism and host's rejection behaviour in a heavily parasitized Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus population". Ibis 144 (4): 614–622. doi:10.1046/j.1474-919X.2002.00085.x. 
  13. ^ Moskát, C.; Honza, M. (2000). "Effect of nest and nest site characteristics on the risk of cuckoo Cuculus canorus parasitism in the great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus". Ecography 23 (3): 335–341. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0587.2000.tb00289.x. 
  14. ^ Katia Moskvitch (24 September 2010). "Extra incubation time lets cuckoo chicks pop out early". BBC News. Retrieved 22 August 2011. 
  15. ^ Davies, N.B.; de L. Brooke, M. (1989). "An experimental study of co-evolution between the Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, and its hosts. II. Host egg markings, chick discrimination and general discussion". Journal of Animal Ecology 58 (1): 225–236. JSTOR 4996. 
  16. ^ Davies, N.B.; Kilner, R.M., Noble, D.G. (1998). "Nestling cuckoos, Cuculus canorus, exploit hosts with begging calls that mimic a brood". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 265 (1397): 673–678. doi:10.1098/rspb.1998.0346. PMC 1689031. 
  17. ^ Robinson, R. A. (2005). "Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus". BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland (BTO Research Report 407). British Trust for Ornithology. Retrieved 12 August 2011. 
  18. ^ "Oliver Pike". WildFilmHistory. Retrieved 25 September 2010. 
  19. ^ de L. Brooke, M.; Nakamura, H. (1998). "The acquisition of host-specific feather lice by common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus)". Journal of Zoology 244 (02): 167–173. 
  • BirdLife International (2004). Cuculus canorus. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 11 May 2006.
  • BBC/OU. Audio CD. The Rules of Life. 2005.

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