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Last updated date: 20th Apr 2024
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What is a Cuckoo?

The cuckoo is a family of birds and Cuculidae is considered to be the sole taxon in the order of Cuculiformes. The cuckoo family of birds includes the common or European cuckoo, roadrunners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals, and anis. The coucals and anis are sometimes separated as distinct families, the Centropodidae and Cryptophagidae respectively. The cuckoo order Cuculiformes is one of three that make up the Otidimorphae, the other two being the turacos and the bustards.

The cuckoos are considered to be medium-sized slender birds hence sometimes they are also called little cuckoo and most of its species live in trees although few of the species of this bird are ground-dwelling. The cuckoos are generally medium-sized slender birds. Most species live in trees, though a sizable minority are ground-dwelling. The family has a cosmopolitan distribution in which the majority of species are tropical. Some species are migratory. The cuckoos feed on insects, insect larvae, and a variety of other animals, as well as fruit. Some species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species, but the majority of species raise their own young.

Cuckoos have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and they are revered by the goddess Hera in Greek mythology. The cuckoo is connected with spring and cuckoldry in Europe, as evidenced by Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Cuckoos are devoted to Kamadeva, the deity of desire and yearning in India, whereas the cuckoo represents unrequited love in Japan.

In this article, we are going to discuss the little cuckoo bird, its description, habitat, diet, and also a few of the most interesting and frequently asked questions that will also be answered. 

What is a Cuckoo Bird? 

  • A real cuckoo bird originates from the family of birds called Cuculidae. They are the only birds in the Cuculiformes order, and they are medium-sized, slender birds that reside in trees or on the ground.

  • Cuckoo birds may be found in both temperate and tropical places across the world, and they reside on every continent except Antarctica. They are a large and varied family of birds, with over 140 distinct species. Although several of them, such as the cuckoo and the koel, is called after the sound they make, not all of them produce it. Roadrunners, coucals, malkohas, guiros, anis, and couas are examples of cuckoos.

  • Cuckoos range in size from 6.5 to 36 inches in length. Gray, brown, green, and blue are some of the hues available. Most cuckoos have small wings and long tails, and the outer toe on their footpoints backward. The cuckoo bird's beak is small and slants downward slightly.

Description of the Cuckoo Birds

  • Cuckoos are medium-sized birds that range in size from 17 grams and 15 centimeters (6 inches) to 630 grams and 63 centimeters (6 inches) for the small bronze cuckoo. There isn't much sexual dimorphism in terms of size, but when it does occur, it can be either the male or the female. The zygodactyl feet, with the two inner toes pointing forward and the two outer toes pointing backward, are one of the family's most recognizable characteristics.

  • There are two fundamental body forms: arboreal species with short tarsi, such as the common cuckoo, and terrestrial species with long tarsi, such as roadrunners. Almost every species has a long tail that is utilized for steering in terrestrial species and as a rudder in arboreal species during flight. The wing form varies according to lifestyle, with migratory cuckoos like the black-billed cuckoo having long narrow wings capable of powerful straight flight and more terrestrial and stationary cuckoos like the coucals and malkohas having shorter rounder wings and a more laborious gliding flight.

  • The cuckoos of the Old World belong to the Cuculinae subfamily, which is brood-parasitic. Longtails, small legs, long thin wings, and an arboreal habitat are typical of them. The channel-billed cuckoo, the family's biggest member, also has the most outsized bill, resembling a hornbill's.

  • The non-parasitic cuckoos of the Old World belong to the Phaenicophaeus subfamily, which includes the couas, malkohas, and ground cuckoos. They have strong, frequently lengthy legs and small, rounded wings, making them more terrestrial cuckoos. Brighter plumage and brilliantly colored exposed skin around the eye are characteristics of this subfamily. The coucals are a terrestrial Old World subfamily of cuckoos with long tails, small legs, and small wings. The greatest black coucal, which is about the same size as the channel-billed cuckoo, is a huge, heavyset bird.

  • The Coccyzinae subfamily has a variety of huge insular species that are arboreal and have long tails. The long-billed roadrunner, which can reach speeds of 30 km/h while seeking prey, is one of the New World ground cuckoos, which are similar to Asian ground cuckoos in that they are long-legged and terrestrial. The atypical anis, which includes the little clumsy anis and the bigger guira cuckoo, is the last subfamily. Massive bills and silky, glossy feathers distinguish anis.

  • Cuckoo feathers are normally delicate, and they become wet easily in heavy rain. Cuckoos frequently sun themselves after rain, and while drying, the anis keep their wings open like a vulture or cormorant. The family's plumage exhibits a great deal of variety. Some species, especially brood parasites, have cryptic plumage, while others have brilliant, intricate plumage. This is especially true of the iridescent Chrysococcyx or shiny cuckoos.

  • With barring on the underside, certain cuckoos resemble hawks in the species Accipiter, and this appears to frighten potential hosts, helping the female to gain entry to a host nest. The offspring of certain brood parasites are colored to look like the host's offspring. Asian koels reproducing in India, for example, produce black progeny to resemble their crow hosts, but Australian koels have brown babies to mimic their honeyeater hosts. In cuckoos, sexual dimorphism in plumage is unusual; it is more prevalent in parasitic Old World species.

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Distribution and Habitat of the Cuckoo Birds 

  • The cuckoos have been distributed in all the world’s continents except for Antarctica. They are not found in South America's southwest, North America's far north and northwest, or the coldest parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They are mostly found as vagrants in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, though one species nests on a number of Pacific islands, while another migrates over most of the Pacific in the winter.

  • Cuculinae is the most widespread cuckoo subfamily, with members found in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Oceania. The malkohas and Asian ground-cuckoos are native to southern Asia, the couas are native to Madagascar, and the yellowbill is found across Africa. Coucals may be found all across the world, from Africa to tropical Asia to Australia and the Solomon Islands. The remaining three subfamilies are all found in North and South America and have a New World distribution. The Coccyzinae does reach the farthest north of all the three subfamilies. They breed in Canada, whereas the anis reach as far north as Florida and the typical ground cuckoos in the southwest United States. 

  • For cuckoos, a proper environment offers a supply of food and a place to reproduce; for brood parasites, a proper environment for the host species is required. Cuckoos may be found in a broad range of settings. The vast majority of species are found in forests and woods, particularly in the tropics' evergreen rainforests. Several species, such as the small bronze cuckoo of Australia, some malkohas, coucals, and the appropriately called mangrove cuckoo of the New World, live in or are confined to mangrove forests.

  • Few species of cuckoo occupy more open environments and these open areas include even arid areas like deserts in the case of the greater roadrunner or the pallid cuckoo. Temperate migratory species like the common cuckoo inhibit a wide range of habitats to maximize the potential brood hosts. 


  • Few species of cuckoo are considered to be sedentary but there are few who also undertake regular seasonal migrations and others undertake partial migrations over part of their range. 

  • Due to food availability, species that breed at higher latitudes move to warmer areas during the winter. The long-tailed koel, which breeds in New Zealand, migrates to Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia for the winter. The yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos breed in North America then travel 4000 kilometers nonstop across the Caribbean Sea. Other lengthy migratory flights include the smaller cuckoo, which travels from Africa to India, and the common cuckoo of Europe, which travels nonstop between Europe and central Africa over the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert.

  • Common cuckoos have long migrations, wintering in Central Africa before traveling thousands of kilometers to Europe and Africa. After spending the spring and summer months mating and parasitizing nests, they depart for Africa towards the end of September. Some species migrate during the day, such as the channel-billed cuckoo, while others migrate at night, such as the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Behavior and Ecology of the Cuckoo Bird 

  • Most of the cuckoo birds are considered to be solitary birds that sometimes occur in pairs or groups and the biggest exception of this is the Anis of America which has evolved cooperative breeding and other behaviors. Most species of the cuckoo are diurnal as opposed to nocturnal but there are many species that call at night. Cuckoos are also considered to be a generally shy and retiring family and they are seen by many humans during the daytime. 

  • Most cuckoos are insectivorous, and they specialize in consuming bigger insects and caterpillars, especially unpleasant hairy varieties that other birds avoid. They are unique among birds in that they digest their prey before eating it by rubbing it back and forth on hard things like twigs and then crushing it with special bony plates at the rear of the mouth. They also eat a variety of different insects and animals. In the absence of birds of prey, the Caribbean's lizard cuckoos have specialized in catching lizards.

  • Larger ground species, such as coucals and roadrunners, eat a variety of snakes, lizards, small rodents, and other birds, which they beat with their powerful beak. To catch prey, ground species may use a variety of strategies. The Coquerel's coua gathered prey by strolling and gleaning on the forest floor, but the red-capped coua rushed and pounced on animals, according to a study of two coua species in Madagascar. Both species showed seasonal plasticity in prey and foraging methods.

  • Several koels, couas, and the Channel-billed cuckoo are primarily fruit eaters, although they are not the only ones. When reared by frugivore hosts such as the Australasian figbird and pied currawong, parasitic koels and Channel-billed cuckoos feed mostly fruit. Other species will occasionally consume fruit as well. Couas eat fruit during the dry season when prey is scarce.

Breeding Habits of the Cuckoo Bird

  • The little cuckoos are considered to be an extremely diverse group of birds when we consider the breeding systems. The majority of the cuckoo species are monogamous in nature but there are also few exceptions.

  • The anis and guira cuckoo deposit their eggs in communal nests that are created by the entire group. All members of the group are responsible for incubation, brooding, and territorial defense. The anis breed in groups of monogamous couples among these species, however, the guira cuckoos are not monogamous within the group, demonstrating a polygynandrous breeding strategy. The nesting behavior of this group is not entirely cooperative; females compete and may take other people's eggs when laying their own. Eggs are often expelled early in the mating season in the anis, although Guira cuckoos can expel them at any time.

  • Polyandry has been established in the African black coucal and is suspected in the other coucals, which may explain the group's reversed sexual dimorphism.

  • The majority of cuckoo species, including malkohas, couas, coucals, and roadrunners, as well as the majority of other American cuckoos, build their own nests, albeit a small percentage participate in brood parasitism. The majority of these species nest in trees or bushes, however, coucals deposit their eggs on the ground or in low shrubs. Even when non-parasitic cuckoos parasitize other species, the parent still helps feed the young.

  • Non-parasitic cuckoos, like most other non-passerine birds, produce white eggs, however, many parasitic species produce colored eggs to match their passerine hosts.

  • All species' young are altricial. Non-parasitic cuckoos leave the nest before they are able to fly, and certain New World species have the lowest incubation times of any bird.

Brood Parasitism of Cuckoo Bird 

  • The common cuckoo is one of the species of the cuckoo which is known to practice brood parasitism which is considered to be a remarkable adaptation that helps in removing the need to raise and feed its own young ones. 

  • Common cuckoos are medium-sized birds that may grow to be up to 34cm long and have a wingspan of 60cm. They are significantly larger than the birds whose nests they parasitize, which are mainly dunnock, meadow pipit, or reed warbler nests, though they have been seen to use the nests of a few others.

  • The female cuckoo lays a single egg in the nest of its selected hosts, devouring one of the original eggs so the host doesn't notice a change. The egg is likewise similar to that of the hosts, except it is normally a little bigger.

  • When the cuckoo chick hatches, it pushes out all the other eggs and chicks, in the case of the other species hatching first. When a cuckoo chick is alone in the nest, its cry resembles that of a large brood, prompting the parents to feed it as if it were many of its own. As a result, the cuckoo chick rapidly gains weight, becoming almost comically much larger than its hosts.

FAQs on Cuckoo

Q1. List Out a Few of the Most Interesting Facts About the Cuckoo Bird.

Ans: Here are a few of the most interesting facts about the cuckoo bird 

  • The male cuckoo is well-known for its characteristic ‘Koo-kooo' cry, which has been replicated by clockmakers all around the world, the cuckoo clock, where-by rather than the clock chiming, it will make a koo-koo sound. Females have a bubbly giggle sound that guys do not.

  • Most evenings between mid-April and June are ideal for hearing a cuckoo.

  • The cuckoo is a parasite of the brood. It is well-known for depositing an egg in another bird's nest and then allowing the child to be born and nourished by 'foster parents.' This devious strategy enables the rearing of more baby cuckoos than would otherwise be feasible.

  • The mother will return to the nest later to verify that the foster parents are feeding her chick the proper food, which includes caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, beetles, and tiny snails.

  • Pipits, warblers, dunnocks, and robins are among the cuckoo's preferred foster parent species.

  • When a cuckoo chick is hungry, its cry can be so loud and demanding that it can induce birds other than its foster parent to feed it.

  • Even though juveniles migrate several weeks later than their parents, they may nevertheless make their way to the typical wintering location despite never having visited it before.

  • With its long, pointed wings and grey-flecked underparts, a cuckoo is frequently mistaken for a sparrowhawk in flight. This imitation is supposed to be a planned deception to frighten a smaller bird away from its nest, allowing the female to place her own egg there.

  • While the cuckoo's cry may be heard for long distances, observations are more difficult since they have drab plumage and prefer to hide behind leafy cover.

  • Cuckoos shun cities and towns and prefer to live in rural areas such as forest borders, open fields, hedgerows, and marshes. These ecosystems are most likely to have a large number of rearing locations.

  • Female cuckoos, unlike other birds, deposit their eggs in the afternoon rather than the morning.

  • Though cuckoo eggs are normally similar to those of their host, around 20% of them are rejected and never hatch.

  • Other eggs or chicks in the nest are not tolerated by young cuckoos.

  • Adult cuckoos return to Africa as soon as the mating season is finished, which in southern England might be as early as the second part of June.

  • Several weeks later, young cuckoos accompany their parents back to Africa.

  • The cuckoo spends nine months of the year in tropical Africa, where its song has never been heard.

Q2. Explain the Call of the Little Cuckoo Bird. 

Ans: Cuckoos are frequently quite secretive and are best recognized for their diverse repertoire of cries. Calls are often basic, sounding like whistles, flutes, or hiccups. The cries are intended to indicate territorial ownership and to attract a mate. Even in species with very vast ranges, sounds within a species are extremely stable across the range. This, along with the fact that many species are not reared by their real parents, shows that cuckoo sounds are intrinsic rather than learned. Despite the fact that cuckoos are diurnal, several species call at night.

The cuckoo family receives its English and scientific names from the male common cuckoo's cry, which is also heard on cuckoo clocks. Some other species' and genera' names are also derived from their sounds, such as the koels of Asia and Australasia. The sounds of most cuckoos are unique to each species and can be used to identify them. The cries of some cryptic species are the best way to identify them.

Q3. What Is the Diet of the Cuckoo Bird?

Ans: The majority of cuckoos are insectivores. That is, they predominantly feed on insect species. Caterpillars are their preferred diet, and they may consume a variety of types that other birds avoid. Lizards, snakes, small rodents, other birds, and fruit are also eaten by some species.

Q4. Describe the Behaviour of Cuckoo Birds With the Humans and Also Explain the Beliefs Related to the Cuckoo Birds. 


Behaviour: The great majority of species are solitary, and only on rare occasions may they be seen in groups or couples. The majority are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, however a few species will vocalize at night. These birds are mostly timid, avoiding human contact and hiding in rather deep foliage.

Beliefs: The cuckoo bird was devoted to the goddess Hera in Greek mythology. To entice Hera, the Greek deity Zeus turned himself into a cuckoo. These birds are also frequently mentioned in William Shakespeare's writings as a sign of the impending spring and fertility.