Cuckoo: Description, Habitat, & Facts

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Table of Contents

Cuckoo Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Cuculiformes

Family: Cuculidae

Genus: Cuculus, 25 others

Cuckoo Description

Medium-sized bird, cuckoo belongs to family Cuculidae. The family includes more than 24 genera of slender birds including roadrunner, European cuckoo.

They are distributed throughout the world. Some species of cuckoo such as roadrunner spend much of their time in the ground and while most of the members are tree-dwelling.


Cuckoo Appearance

The bronze cuckoo is the smallest member of this family, which weighs only 0.03 lbs and has a length of about 6 inches whereas the channel-billed cuckoo, which is the largest species weighs up to 1.4lbs and have 25 in length.

The European cuckoo is a common and well-known species, which is 32 cm in length. The body of the common cuckoo appears greyish in color whereas some females and juveniles also show a red-rust or rufous color morph.

The tail of the cuckoo makes about 40 percent of its overall length and the belly feathers also present on their frontside that are barred black and white. Common cuckoo molts twice per year.


The members of the cuckoo family display a variety of traits and behaviors but still, they have some common traits.

For example, their feet are the significant distinguishing feature, which includes four toes among which two inner toes point forward while two outer toes point backward.

The condition is called ‘zygodactyl’. The members of the family Cuculidae consist of species having two general body forms named arboreal and terrestrial species.

The arboreal species including the common cuckoo have a slender body with shorter feet and are tree-dwellers. The terrestrial species have different body forms with larger feet and have rounder and heavier bodies.

The example includes roadrunner that spends their time on the ground and prefers running instead of flying. Due to their heavier body flying is not a viable option for terrestrial cuckoos.

Cuckoo Distribution

Cuckoo belongs to a large family and is distributed all over the world on every continent besides Antarctica. The brood parasite cuckoos from sub-family cuculinae are one of the most broadly distributed sub-family, which occur across Asia, Europe, Australia, and Oceania.

The different species have different habitat preferences such as arboreal species are primarily tree-dwellers and terrestrial species prefer to live on the ground. They select their habitat based on food availability and safety to form a nest and breeding.

Some species prefer arid deserts or less vegetated areas to live in, e.g. the greater roadrunner. Most of the species tend to remain in their tropical paradise but some species prefer seasonal migration while some others migrate within their range.

The example includes the long-tailed koel, which breeds in New Zealand but in winters it migrates to grounds of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Most cuckoo species feed on insects mainly on caterpillars.

Cuckoo Nesting and Reproduction

The breeding habits also vary among species of the cuckoo family. Most species including roadrunners are monogamous. They build their nests in trees while the terrestrial species from a nest on the ground.

The common cuckoo finds a perch to settle on during the breeding season. The cuckoo drops its wings at its side by raising its long tail. Some of the species resort to brood parasitism while the majority of species raise their young ones on their own.

The parasitic birds lay just one egg in the host species’ nest whereas non-parasitic birds lay up to 6 eggs in their own nest. The distribution of these species is worldwide.

Some species are threatened from habitat destruction or human development but most of the species are not threatened. The IUCN Red List for threatened species listed them as “Least concerned” species.

Fun Facts About Cuckoo!

Human culture has interacted with Cuckoos for millions of years, from ancient Greece to the Europe of Shakespeare to India and Japan.

Cuckoo is a Parasite Bird

The category of brood parasites includes common cuckoo and other members of the subfamily Cuculinae. The young ones of these species are reared by other species. When the owner of a nest is out for hunting or defending its territory, the female cuckoo lays her egg in its nest.

The males also do the bidding for females in some cuckoo species by luring the host species away from its nest. The other bird incubates the egg of the cuckoo and also feeds the cuckoo chick after its birth.

The cuckoo chick often pushes other eggs and chicks from the nest and takes over. Warblers are also one of the host adults that are much smaller than the large cuckoo chick.

In some cases, the young of these brood parasite species have cryptic plumage (feathers) at a young age and the plumage resembles similar to the host species. Some cuckoo eggs will also mimic the eggs of the host species.

Cuckoo: a Communal Bird

The cuckoo is a monogamous organism. However, several species of cuckoo show brood parasitism. This interesting behavior is only seen in the members of the cuckoo family.

However, besides brood parasitism, one another behavior is also seen in some species. The anis cuckoo and the guira cuckoo and some other species also lay their eggs in communal nests.

The large nest was built by all the members of the group and then used by all to rear their young. But the system has also some problems like many communal situations.

The females have competition between them to remove other eggs from the nest to lay their own.

Cuckoo: an Advanced Repertoire

The diverse calls and songs of cuckoo are well-known. They are secretive and deceptive birds and communicate via their variety of songs. They also announce their dominion and attract their mates with songs.

Interestingly, over vast geographical ranges, the songs remain highly consistent. But instead of learning from their parents, they may be innate to a species due to their communal raising.

Cuckoo Citations
  • Parasitic cuckoo catfish exploit parental responses to stray offspring. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci . 2019 Apr 1;374(1769):20180412.
  • A melanocytic cuckoo. JAAD Case Rep . 2018 Apr 6;4(4):384-385.
  • A cuckoo in the nest. New Sci . 2020 Apr 11;246(3277):32.


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