Common cuckoo: the bird profiles


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Why does the common cuckoo lay its eggs in the nests of other birds? Does the cuckoo also build its own nest? And when should you report a cuckoo if you see or hear it? Everything about this famous bird in our fact sheet.

Grey feathered common cuckoo perched on tree branch
The cuckoo is a magnificent but rarely seen bird [Photo: Piotr Krzeslak/]

Everyone knows the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). It is hard to forget the cuckoo’s unique call and its tendency to lay eggs in the nests of other birds. But what else do we know about the cuckoo? Have you actually ever seen one of these magnificent birds before? Did you recognise it in the picture above? As the cuckoo has gained a bit of a reputation as a parasite, we would like to shed some light on the various aspects of its life and show you another side to this amazing bird.

Common cuckoo: profile

Breeding seasonDepends on the host bird
LifespanUp to 10 years
HabitatThin forests and farmed landscapes with lots of structures
Food preferencesInsects, spiders, worms and other small creatures
ThreatsLoss of habitat and food sources

How to identify the cuckoo

The cuckoo is about the size of a pigeon, but slimmer with a long, black and white patterned tail. Its upper body is grey to brown and its pale, white belly is criss-crossed by fine, dark stripes reminiscent of a sparrowhawk. Its yellow-rimmed eyes and feet are also eye-catching splashes of colour.

Cuckoo with long tail and horizontally striped chest
The cuckoo is distinguished by its long tail and striped belly [Photo: SW_Stock/]

What does the common cuckoo call sound like?

The cuckoo’s song consists of a two-syllable, loud “cuck-oo”, which is stressed on the first syllable and gives the cuckoo its name. This is not only true in English, but also in other languages where the bird is likewise named after its characteristic call. The cuckoo, for example, is known as “Kuckuck” in German or “koekoek” in Dutch.

Common cuckoo bird singing out
The call of the cuckoo resounds far and wide through the landscape [Photo: Mark Caunt/]

How do female and male cuckoos differ?

While a male cuckoo has mainly grey plumage and a solid-coloured head and breast, female cuckoos come in two different colour varieties, also known as “morphs”. The first colour morph, on the one hand, is grey and looks quite similar to the male. The only difference is the slightly brown tinged breast, which is streaked with similar horizontal stripes as the belly. The second, rarer morph, on the other hand, has a shiny, rusty brown plumage with bold, dark stripes.

Brown female common cuckoo bird
Female cuckoos can also be brown in colour [Photo: selimtumir/]

What does a juvenile cuckoo look like?

Young cuckoos are even more strikingly patterned than their parents. Their entire plumage is criss-crossed of strong, dark stripes. The young’s back and wing feathers are also dotted with brown spots and there is a prominent white patch on the young bird’s neck.

Young cuckoo with dark striped plumage and brown spots
Young cuckoos are strikingly patterned brown grey [Photo: V. Belov/]

What kind of habitat does the cuckoo prefer?

The cuckoo lives in a wide range of habitats. It can be found in sparse forests, but also in farmed landscapes with structures such as hedges or other tall vegetation. The birds only avoid very dense woodland. And of course, the presence of a cuckoo depends on the location of its host bird species.

What do common cuckoo eggs look like?

This question is not so easy to answer because female cuckoos can colour-match their eggs with those of their host species to camouflage them in a foreign clutch. Female cuckoos have different preferences as to which bird species they use as a host, and they pass this on to their daughters. You can still recognise a cuckoo egg by its size, because it is usually always slightly larger than the host eggs. The cuckoo never builds its own nest, but only uses those of other bird species. Female cuckoos lay about ten eggs per year, each of which is placed in a different host nest.

Nest of eggs with one cuckoo egg slightly bigger than the rest
Which one do you think is the cuckoo’s egg? [Photo: Vishnevskiy Vasily/]

When is the cuckoo’s breeding season?

Since the cuckoo does not incubate its own eggs, it basically has no incubation period. The time of egg-laying depends on that of the host bird species and takes place shortly after or even at the same time. Cuckoo eggs have a short incubation period of about twelve days, so the cuckoo chick usually hatches before the host bird’s offspring. This allows it to get rid of the other eggs from the nest before they hatch, so that it does not need to compete with the other bird babies for food. Because of its substantial size, the cuckoo chick needs all the food that the parent birds carry into the nest for itself.

Small robin feeding large singe cuckoo chick
A robin feeding a cuckoo baby hatched in its nest [Photo: John Navajo/]

Note: As dramatic as the cuckoo’s behaviour sounds, it has no negative impact on host bird populations. Even in species that are comparatively frequently used by the cuckoo, the proportion of “hijacked” nests is less than one percent. However, the cuckoo itself has gained a decisive advantage with its behaviour, because it saves itself a lot of work. The energy saved can then be used for other tasks, such as its long journeys.

Where do cuckoos spend the winter?

The cuckoo is a migratory bird that spends its winters in the tropical savannahs of Africa. It is a long-distance migrant, with the adults leaving in July or August and their young a month or so later. They return to the UK the following spring in late March or April.

Help the common cuckoo!

Due to our increasingly monocultural countryside and the loss of insects and other small creatures, the cuckoo is gradually losing its basis of existence and its population has been in sharp decline for several years. Read on to find out how to help support this magnificent bird.

What do cuckoos eat?

Cuckoos feed exclusively on animal food. They hunt insects, spiders, worms and other small animals. Sometimes they even eat small frogs and other amphibians. Plant food, on the other hand, is not on the cuckoo’s menu, so putting out classic bird food will not impress this meat-eater.

Cuckoo bird eating insect
Common cuckoos prefer animal food [Photo: Piotr Krzeslak/]

However, if you still want to support the cuckoo in your garden, designing an insect-friendly garden can make a big difference. For example, by planting a flower meadow, you can provide a wonderful habitat for a variety of insects and other small garden creatures, which many garden birds, including the cuckoo, can enjoy.

Other threats to the common cuckoo

It is not only the lack of food and habitat that is causing problems for the cuckoo. Climate change could also soon have a very negative impact on populations. As spring begins earlier and earlier each year, so too does the breeding season for many bird species. However, since the cuckoo must travel the long distance from its wintering grounds, it may soon arrive too late and miss the breeding season of its host birds. There is currently a lot of research being done on this topic.

Another bird species that has made a name for itself with its unique song is the common chiffchaff. Get to know this garden bird a little better in our in-depth article.

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