Across the animal kingdom, birds display a fascinating array of nesting habits. Whether meticulously crafting nests out of mud, building treetop structures, or opting for simple ground depressions, these incredible creatures invest significant time and effort into creating the perfect environment for their eggs. But among the diverse world of avian life, there exists a cunning exception: the common cuckoo. Known for stealing other birds’ nests through a mix of trickery and force, the common cuckoo has gained infamy for its deceptive approach to nesting.

To better understand the life and behavior of these nest thieves, we’ll explore the common cuckoo’s unique characteristics and strategies, from their taxonomy and distribution to their diet, nest-stealing tactics, and chick behavior. In addition, we’ll delve into their ecological and cultural significance and address some frequently asked questions about the ultimate avian trickster – the common cuckoo.


The common cuckoo, known as Cuculus canorus, is part of the Cuculidae family. This family encompasses various birds such as roadrunners, doels, couas, coucals, anis, and malkohas. Its Latin name, which translates to “the melodious cuckoo,” highlights the distinct call made by male common cuckoos, resembling the sound “cuckoo.” This term is also derived from the French word cucu, which dates back around 800 years in old poetry and songs.

Currently, scientists have identified four subspecies of the common cuckoo. While the nominate subspecies, C. c. canorus, is the most widely known, the other three include C. c. bakeri, C. c. bangsi, and C. c. subtelephonus.


Common cuckoos are known to migrate between continents, spending their spring and summer months in Europe and Asia, while heading to Africa during the winter season. In the warmer months, these birds can be found in various countries such as the UK, Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, China, Korea, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Thailand. As the temperature drops, they move to Sub-Saharan Africa, southern India, Myanmar, and Thailand to escape the cold.

These birds thrive in open spaces with a sparse tree cover, making their homes in fields, scrubland, parks, and marshes. Although the global population of common cuckoos is less than 100 million and experiencing a decline, they are still considered a species of Least Concern by the IUCN due to their widespread distribution.

Physical Characteristics

The Common Cuckoo is a medium-sized bird, typically measuring around 13 inches long and boasting a wingspan of 22 to 24 inches. Its body and tail are long and slender, whereas its legs are noticeably shorter. The cuckoo’s plumage mainly consists of gray tones, but some individuals exhibit rufous coloration, especially during their juvenile stage or occasionally in adulthood. The bird’s underparts present alternating dark and light bars, adding to its distinctive appearance. Furthermore, its eyes are surrounded by a striking yellow ring. Interestingly, people often confuse the Common Cuckoo with the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, and even other birds make this mistake. As a result, birds may flee their nests upon seeing a cuckoo, inadvertently providing an opportunity for female cuckoos to lay their eggs undisturbed.


Common cuckoos are active during the day, feasting mainly on a variety of insects. Some of their favorite meals include beetles, insect larvae, crickets, and dragonflies. A unique aspect of their diet is their preference for hairy caterpillars, which are typically avoided by other bird species due to their unpalatable taste.

Occasionally, common cuckoos consume eggs and chicks of other birds as well. While hunting, they often search for food on the ground, running or hopping after their prey. Once a caterpillar is caught, they might shake or bang it against a tree to detach its spines. However, they may also swallow it whole, not bothering to remove the spines beforehand.

Nest Stealing Behavior

The common cuckoo exhibits a fascinating behavior known as brood parasitism. This allows it to lay eggs in the nests of other birds, avoiding the need to build a nest and care for its offspring. During breeding season, a single female cuckoo may lay eggs in as many as 50 different nests, relying on host species such as reed warblers, dunnocks, and pipits to care for the chicks.

Female cuckoos tend to target nests that are close to their location and wait for the hosts to leave the nests unattended. In some cases, they may focus on a select few host species, while others have a broader range. Incubating the eggs inside their bodies for a day before depositing them in the host nest results in the cuckoo hatching first. As a result, it is able to enjoy the lion’s share of the food and attention from its unwitting foster parents.

Chick Behavior

Common cuckoo chicks display some intriguing behaviors. Upon hatching, these chicks take action to ensure they receive full attention from their host parents. One such action is evicting the host’s eggs or live young. Cuckoo chicks typically hatch before host chicks, enabling them to push any competition out of the nest1.

If the host’s young hatch first, the stronger cuckoo chick still manages to force them out. This aggressive behavior is believed to be aimed at monopolizing the host’s food and care resources, as young cuckoos need substantial nourishment to thrive.

Ecological and Cultural Importance

Cuckoos, especially their chicks, serve as a key indicator of bird community biodiversity. A higher number of host species for cuckoos signifies increased biodiversity in the region. Besides ecological importance, cuckoos hold significant cultural value throughout many areas. They are frequently mentioned in legends, songs, books, and plays. In Europe, the cuckoo’s call is celebrated as a herald of spring’s arrival.

The term “cuckoo” also idiomatically denotes someone who is crazy or foolish, adding another layer to the bird’s cultural impact on language and expression.

Frequently Asked Questions About Common Cuckoos

Common cuckoos are known for their unique call, which inspired cuckoo clocks. They are skilled at mimicking the songs of their host birds, but have their own distinct melody. Various subspecies of common cuckoos exist, and they are classified as a species of “least concern” in terms of conservation.

Some predators of common cuckoos include falcons and hawks, like the red-shouldered hawk and sparrowhawk. As for their lifespan, the oldest recorded cuckoo lived up to 6 years and 11 months, although most cuckoos in the wild don’t live as long.


  1. Common Cuckoo | Audubon Field Guide

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