Animals

Bird of the Week: Cuckoo

To many, the villain of the bird world – but one that is increasingly cherished as numbers fall.Tuesday, 21 May 2019

By Jamie Wyver
Photographs By RSPB Images
A common cuckoo male in a summer shower, Surrey.

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.

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. 

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