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What is a Cuckoo?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A cuckoo is a bird in the family Cuculidae, which contains a broad cross-section of bird species found in both the Old and New World. These birds are particularly famous for their calls, which classically consist of two notes, although many cuckoo species can make additional noises, which often sound quite plaintive and haunting. Some members of the cuckoo family are also brood parasites, laying eggs in the nest of other birds to trick them into raising their young.

A number of traits can be used to identify a member of the cuckoo family. These birds tend to have very slender bodies, with long tails and stocky legs, and many have crests of their heads. The plumage of a cuckoo can vary, with many birds being grayish to brown in color, sometimes with patches of bright spots. These birds have what are known as zygodactyl toes, meaning that two toes face forward, and two toes face backward; this trait leads cuckoos to be classified as “near passerine birds.”

Cuckoo habitats vary widely. Some species prefer to live, nest, and hunt on the ground, while others fly and perch, building nests in trees. Cuckoos can be found in harsh desert environments, and lush forests, and many are quite adaptable, displaying a remarkable ability to cope with environmental changes. The vast majority of the birds are insectivorous, using their stout beaks to crush their prey before swallowing, and some cuckoos even prepare their food by scraping it across rocks and bark to remove unappetizing spines or hair.

Although the cuckoo is famous as a brood parasite, relatively few cuckoo species actually demonstrate parasitism. The vast majority prefer to nest and raise their own young. Among species which have evolved as brood parasites, the eggs are often similar in color and size to those of specific bird species, indicating that the birds have evolved to take advantage of particular birds. Cuckoo eggs usually hatch first, and the chick uses its larger size to crowd out the other hatchlings.

These birds are a topic of some discussion and debate among ornithologists. Several cuckoo species have proved difficult to classify, and some attempts have been made to sequence the genetics of the cuckoo in an attempt to unravel the complicated biological history of these birds. Cuckoos also display such a wide range of behaviors and vocalizations that the Cuculidae family is actually split up into a number of subfamilies, representing the clear differences between individual members of this avian family.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Apr 16, 2014

@bear78-- Actually, birds do sometimes notice that the egg is not theirs. And they may leave the nest in those cases.

It is true that some birds end up caring for the cuckoo's young for a very long time, without realizing that it's not their own. I'm not sure how this is possible, especially considering that the cuckoo usually grows much larger than the foster parents in a very short period. I guess that's one of nature's secrets we'll never now.

The article has made a good point that most cuckoos do not practice parasitism. Sixty percent of cuckoos in the world rear their own eggs. I think the cuckoo species that do engage in this do so to protect the future of the species. I have a theory that brood parasitism may be more common in areas where there is a shortage of food for all birds.

By bear78 — On Apr 16, 2014

What I don't understand about cuckoo parasitism is how other birds don't recognize that there is a different egg in the nest. Let's say that the cuckoo egg looks just like the other eggs, then why don't birds realize that this is not their chick after the egg has hatched?

By fify — On Apr 15, 2014

Cuckoos are a popular theme in films, especially Indian films. In the film "Happy," the girl is tricked by the call of cuckoo which turns out to be a boy mimicking the cuckoo's call. Parasitism of cuckoos were also mentioned in "3 Idiots," where the dean of the school asks students what a cuckoo chick does as soon as it hatches from the egg. The answer is that the chick pushes the other bird's eggs out of the nest. This was the dean's example to students about competition in life.

By Terrificli — On Apr 07, 2014

@Soulfox -- true, and the closest thing we have to a cuckoo in the United States is the road runner which is in the Southwest. That bird is in the same family, but is a heck of a lot different.

By Soulfox — On Apr 06, 2014

Most people know about the sound this bird makes due to the one very common cuckoo clock. Outside of those clocks, one must wonder if most people know a thing about these birds.

It is somewhat strange that the cuckoo clock is very familiar in the United States as the bird that inspired those clocks is not indigenous to the United States.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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