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Quick facts

Common names: common cuckoo

Scientific name: Cuculus canorus

Family: Cuculidae (cuckoos)

Habitat: woodland edges and grassland

Diet: invertebrates, with caterpillars a particular favourite

Predators: chicks and eggs are vulnerable to nest predators such as stoats and weasels

Origin: native

What do cuckoos look like?

Cuckoos are between a blackbird and woodpigeon in size. They have pointed wings that droop when perched.

Cuckoos have a grey head with a thin, bright yellow ring around their eye, yellow feet and a black beak. They have dark grey plumage on their upper parts and barred plumage below which resembles the markings of the sparrowhawk. Some females are a rusty-brown colour.

In flight, the cuckoo looks very similar to a sparrowhawk. Look at the tail to distinguish a cuckoo, which has a graduated tail.

cuckoo flying with caught caterpillar

Credit: Josh Harrison / Alamy Stock Photo

What do cuckoos eat?

Cuckoos eat invertebrates, and hairy caterpillars are a particular favourite. They find their food in bushes and trees. They are diurnal, this means they are active during the day.

Did you know?

Host birds are tricked into carrying on feeding the often much larger cuckoo chick because of its call, which mimics a whole nest of hungry host chicks.

How do cuckoos breed?

Cuckoos court multiple mates during the mating period in April.

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 dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers are favourites. Females wait until the host has left the nest, sometimes spooking the bird away, then swoop in to lay a single egg.

The chick hatches after around 11 days. It will push any other eggs or chicks out of the nest, ensuring it receives the sole attention of its adoptive parents. They will continue to feed the young cuckoo, even though it may grow to two or three times their size.

Cuckoos leave the nest after around 20 days but continue to be fed by their host for a few more weeks. They reach sexual maturity at two years old.

male cuckoo hunting for caterpillars

Credit: Andy Rouse / naturepl.com

Do cuckoos migrate?

Cuckoos overwinter in Africa, migrating to the UK in the spring and leaving by late June. Fledglings fly to Africa a few weeks after their parents.

Did you know?

Different cuckoos have a preference for particular host species, even laying similar looking eggs to their preferred hosts!

Where do cuckoos live?

The cuckoo is a summer visitor to the UK, arriving from April onwards. They do not spend long here, with many having flown south to Africa by the end of June. Find them in woodland, particularly woodland edges, as well as around reedbeds and the moorlands of Scotland.

cuckoo in woodland

Credit: John Bridges / WTML

Signs and spotting tips

Your best bet for finding a cuckoo is to listen for it. The ‘cuck-oo’ call gave the bird its common name. The female also produces a distinctive bubbling call. Cuckoos will congregate in habitats where there are large numbers of meadow pipits or reed warblers. Look out for them perched very still, on the lookout for prey and unattended nests.

Cuckoo song

Audio: David Farrow / xeno-canto.org

Did you know?

Cuckoos eat poisonous caterpillars that most other birds avoid, shaking out the toxic substance before swallowing their prey.

Threats and conservation

You’re a lot less likely to see, or hear, a cuckoo these days. A combination of a loss of habitat and the knock-on effects to their host species affect them here in the UK, but deforestation and hunting on migration routes are also thought to have had an impact on numbers.