Bird of the Week: Cuckoo

To many, the villain of the bird world – but one that is increasingly cherished as numbers fall.

By Jamie Wyver
photographs by RSPB Images
Published 21 May 2019, 10:02 BST
A common cuckoo male in a summer shower, Surrey.
A common cuckoo male in a summer shower, Surrey.
Photograph by Ben Andrew, RSPB Images

Cuckoos are famed for laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and the distinctive call that gives them their name. But they’re also incredible travellers. A young cuckoo, having been raised in the nest of another bird, for example a reed warbler, must find its own way to central Africa. Most cuckoos leave us in July and fly across to southern Europe. They then feed up before the next step of their journey, a gruelling 3,000km (1,875 miles) crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara.

Cuculus canorus, or common cuckoo, perched on a branch in Essex, England. The name may suggest otherwise, but this bird is decreasingly common in the UK.
Photograph by PSPB Images

Once arrived, the female cuckoos look out for suitable host parents to raise her chick. Her favourite nests are those of dunnocks, meadow pipits, and reed warblers, and she could lay as many as 25 eggs in different nests throughout the summer! The cuckoo eggs will look remarkably similar to those of the host birds, fooling them into thinking it is one of their own. 

Once it has hatched, the cuckoo chick won’t tolerate any siblings and pushes any other eggs or chicks out of the nest. Even after it has outgrown the nest and is obviously much larger than its ‘parents’, the chick will continue being fed by them until it is ready to fly away.

The bird's distinctive call is synonymous with summertime, but is becoming harder to hear: cuckoos are now on the red list in the UK after years of decreasing populations. 

Read More

You might also like

Environment and Conservation
Reports of raptor killings soared during the U.K.'s lockdown
How many birds are there in the world?
Welcome home: the lost English species making a comeback
10 new birds discovered in 'lost world'
Bird of the Week: Hen Harrier

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved