Common Cuckoos

Common cuckoos take advantage of a number of other birds by tricking them into rearing their young for them, who are sometimes much, much larger than their foster parents!

Cuckoo in a robin's nest

Cuckoo in a robin's nest


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Cuculiformes
Family: Cuculidae
Species: Cuculus canorus


Cuckoos are a family of a number of species of medium sized birds, so-called because of the European common cuckoo. Some species of cuckoo engage in brood parasitism, which involves laying their eggs in other species' nests, but most raise their own young.


With a call that sounds unmistakably like "cuckoo", the name is onomatopoeic - meaning that the name given sounds like the noise that it makes.

Attenborough on Cuckoos

The cuckoo lends its name to cuckoo clocks, first made in the Black Forest in what is now south west Germany. The clock strikes the hours with a sound that sounds like the cuckoo's call.

Brood Parasitism

The common cuckoo is one species of cuckoo which practices brood parasitism, a remarkable adaptation which removes the need to raise and feed its own young.

Being up to 34cm long and with a wingspan of 60 cm common cuckoos are medium-sized birds, yet much larger than the birds whose nests they parasitise, which are usually dunnock, meadow pipit or reed warbler nests, but can be found to utilise the nests of a few others.

Newly-hatched cuckoo chick pushing a dunnock's egg out of the nest

Newly-hatched cuckoo chick pushing a dunnock's egg out of the nest

The female cuckoo lays a single egg in its chosen hosts' nest, eating one of the original eggs so that the host won't spot a difference. The egg also mimics that of the hosts' eggs, although they are usually a little larger.

When hatched, the cuckoo chick removes all the other eggs, and any chicks in the case of the other species hatching first, pushing them out with its back. Alone in the nest the cuckoo chick's call then resembles that of a full brood, pushing the parents to feed it as if it were several of its own. This leads the cuckoo chick to rapidly gain weight, quickly becoming almost comically, much larger than its hosts.

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Common cuckoos undertake vast migrations, wintering in central Africa before travelling thousands of miles to Europe and Africa. Having spend the spring and summer months breeding and parasitising nests they then leave for Africa around the end of September.

Satellite tracking has shown various routes of crossing the deserts of north Africa, an inhospitable wilderness which UK-migrant common cuckoos endure every year.

Quick Facts

  • Some taxonomists put hoatzins, known for it's unique claws as a chick, in the cuckoo family.
  • The cuckoo family also contains the roadrunners.
  • Hearing the call is said to mark the coming of spring.
  • Barred pattern and grey-brown colouration mimics the sparrowhawk - giving them more time to lay their eggs in their hosts' nests.
  • Cuckoos internally incubate their eggs for 24 hours, giving them a head-start over the rest of the nest.