Species Spotlight: The Common Cuckoo

The cuckoo, belonging to the family Cuculidae, is a bird that has fascinated people across the globe with its distinctive call and unique breeding behaviour. While the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), known for its iconic “cu-coo” call, is perhaps the most famous, the family encompasses a diverse array of species found all over the world, each with its own unique characteristics. There are many species in the genus Cuculus alone, but the broader family includes other genera, making the total number of species in the Cuculidae family significantly larger.

Cuckoos inhabit a variety of climates and ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to temperate woodlands. The Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is the most widely recognized, found across Europe and Asia, migrating to Africa for the winter. It is known for its parasitic breeding behaviour, laying its eggs in the nests of other bird species.

In contrast, The Great Lizard Cuckoo (Saurothera merlini), also known simply as the Cuban Lizard Cuckoo, is a distinctive and fascinating species within the cuckoo family, primarily found in Cuba and on nearby islands. This bird is particularly notable for its size, making it one of the larger cuckoos, and its striking appearance. As its name suggests, the diet of the Great Lizard Cuckoo is heavily skewed towards lizards, which it hunts with remarkable agility. However, it also feeds on large insects and occasionally small birds or eggs, making it a versatile predator. Unlike the Common Cuckoo, the Great Lizard Cuckoo does not practice brood parasitism; instead, it builds its own nest and raises its young independently.

The Common Cuckoo and the Great Lizard Cuckoo

There are countless more interesting cuckoo species to explore, but for now, let’s return to our friend the Common Cuckoo…

The Great Deceivers

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the cuckoo’s life is its breeding strategy, known as brood parasitism. Common Cuckoos do not build nests; instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, leaving the task of raising their young to these unwitting hosts. The female cuckoo has developed remarkable adaptations for this, such as mimicking the egg patterns and colours of their chosen host species to increase the chances of their eggs being accepted. This behaviour raises fascinating questions about evolutionary arms races, as host species develop counter-strategies to detect and reject intruder eggs.

By conducting surveys, we can better understand the relationship between the cuckoo and the host species, as cuckoos cannot successfully breed without a healthy hosts and their respective habitats for nesting.

Spring Arrival and Song

Cuckoos generally arrive in the UK during late March and April. Their migration is closely tied to the changing seasons, as they return to breed during the spring and summer months. The timing of their arrival can vary slightly from year to year depending on weather conditions both in the UK and along their migratory routes from Africa, where they spend the winter.

Cuckoos are widely recognized for its distinctive call that heralds the arrival of spring. The male cuckoo’s song, characterized by the simple, melodic “cu-coo” that has become synonymous with the bird itself, serves as both a territorial claim and a beacon to potential mates. This dual-purpose vocalization is remarkably effective at establishing the male cuckoo’s presence across a wide area.

Cuckoos can often command wide territories, and their call can be heard from far distances on a good day. They can also have distinctive calls, which you may be able to recognise if you get to know them well enough! Listen below to one of our samples: