Despite the familiarity of its cry, the cuckoo remains a stranger to most people. Unlike its famous image in the cuckoo clock, the bird stays away from people. Furtive, watchful and usually alone, a cuckoo's slender, brown-grey body is difficult to spot in forested terrain. Its two-syllable call is said to be the first sign of spring every year throughout Europe.
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The cuckoo family is a large one, with members around the world. The scientific description puts the cuckoo in the order cuculiforme, family cuculidae, and includes such disparate birds as the roadrunner. While some cuculidae are brightly plumed, most are grey or brown with long slender bodies, including the common cuckoo--found throughout Europe--and the yellow-billed and black-billed Cuckoos, more common in the United States. All have long tails and soft feathers.
Many types of cuckoo--including the common and the yellow-billed--live mostly on insects, particularly hairy caterpillars. They round out their diet with eggs and hatchlings of other species. Other members of the cuckoo family, such as the roadrunner, eat reptiles, small animals and fruit.
Breeding and Nesting
Cuckoos are known for the unusual way they raise their young. Instead of building a nest and hatching eggs, some species, including the common cuckoo, will find an unsuspecting host family. When the other bird is absent from its nest, the cuckoo removes one of the eggs present in the nest, then quickly lays an egg in its place. This practice, termed "brood parasitism," results in the cuckoo young being raised by surrogate parents of another bird species.
The cuckoo habitat varies according to species. Some cuckoos fly and perch in trees, while others spend their lives on the ground. Subspecies can be found in forests and deserts, but all require a source of food, water, and nesting area. Those cuckoos that are brood parasites also require the presence of the birds whose nests cuckoos will deposit their eggs.
The population of cuckoos is getting smaller. In England, the decline of the common cuckoos' host species--Dunnock, Reed Warbler and Meadow Pipit--has resulted in a 15 per cent decline in the Cuckoo population. In the United States, the population of the yellow-billed cuckoo has declined sharply--from 15,000 to 30 pairs in California in less than 100 years--due to the destruction of forests and pesticide use. Its future is uncertain.
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- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, Cuckoos, Roadrunners and Anis
- Bird Minds: Bird Intelligence, the Cuckoo
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Hughes, Janice 1999
- Stanford Education Group: Brood Parasistism
- Birdcare: Common Cuckoo