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Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

Known for its distinctive call, the cuckoo is also famed for laying its eggs in other birds' nests.

Common name: Common cuckoo

Scientific name: Cuculus canorus

Family: Cuculidae (cuckoos)

Appearance

Head: Cuckoos have a grey head with a thin bright-yellow ring around their eye and a black beak.

Wings: In between a blackbird and wood pigeon in size, cuckoo wings are pointed and often drooped when perching.

Body: Cuckoos have grey upper parts and barring below. Some females are rusty brown. The species can resemble a sparrowhawk in flight, although its graduated tail is a give-away.

Where to spot

The cuckoo is a summer visitor, arriving from April onwards. They do not spend long in the UK, with many having flown south to Africa by the end of June.

Normally found in woodland, reed beds and marshes, the species is much easier to hear than see, with its distinctive call one of the iconic sounds of summer. The familiar 'cuckoo' call is made by the male bird - the female’s song is a quiet gurgle.

Icon SoundListen to the distinctive call of a male cuckoo.

Citizen science detects cuckoo decline

Data on cuckoo sightings from our Nature's Calendar work and the British Trust for Ornithology has backed up other scientific research to suggest that cuckoo is in decline.

If you'd like to help with this project and record your first cuckoo sightings of spring on our live maps it's easy. Find out more with Nature's Calendar.

Feeding

Cuckoos eat insects, with hairy caterpillars a particularly favoured prey.

Breeding

As brood parasites, cuckoos do not raise their own young, instead laying eggs in the nests of other birds, which raise the chick thinking it is one of their own. The nests of numerous species may be chosen, but dunnocks, meadow pipits, and reed warblers are favoured.

Once the cuckoo chick hatches, it will push any other eggs or chicks out of the nest, ensuring it receives the sole attention of its adopted parents. They will continue to feed the young cuckoo, even though it may grow to two or three times their size.

Facts

  • The cuckoo is thought to have evolved to resemble the sparrowhawk. This allows it to access the nests of other birds, as they flee mistaking it for the predator.
  • The number of cuckoos in the UK has fallen by 56% since 1970.
  • The exact reason for this decline is unclear, with a reduction in caterpillar numbers and deterioration of conditions in Africa and on migration routes suggested as possible factors.

Have you heard or seen a cuckoo? Join Nature's Calendar

We need to know when cuckoos are first arriving to the UK each spring. Can you help us build a picture? You can see your sightings instantly on the live map and your records will help us track the effects of weather and changing climate on wildlife.

Take part in Nature's Calendar