Cuckoo: Key Facts

You may have heard that cuckoos are brood parasites, but what does that mean exactly? Where did the cuckoo get its name, and why does it have such a distinctive call? Read on to learn about these and more cuckoo key facts.

Quick Facts About the Cuckoo

Scientific Name:Cuculidae
Description:Small to medium sized birds of flight, generally gray or brown with white and black stripes across the chest. Some are more brightly colored. Some have speckled wings, while others have spiked crown feathers. Most have large round eyes with black pupils and yellow, orange, or white irises.
Distribution:Widely distributed throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Habitat:Varies widely; tropical and temperate regions including mangrove forests, rainforests, grasslands, swamps, moors, deserts, woodlands, and marshes.
Number of Species:140
Size:Varies depending on species; 6 to 30 inches long; ½ to 1 ½ pounds in weight.
Diet:Insects, especially hairy caterpillars; may eat other small invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes; small frogs, lizards, other birds, and fruit.
Lifespan:Uncertain; maximum recorded cuckoo lifespan was 6 years, 11 months, 2 days.
Breeding Habits:Cuckoos breed in spring and summer, mating with multiple partners each season. 40 percent of cuckoos are brood parasites, meaning the females lay eggs in the nests of other birds.

What is the Cuckoo?

The cuckoo is a bird in the family Cuculidae. There are many different species of cuckoo, and they vary greatly in size and color.

Cuckoos are birds of flight who migrate to warmer climates during the winter. Some cuckoos travel several thousand miles during their migration each year.

Cuckoos are insectivores, but some species will also eat small animals such as frogs and other birds. Many also enjoy eating fruits and berries.

How Did the Cuckoo Get Its Name?

The cuckoo’s name comes from the distinctive song it sings during breeding season: “coo-coo, coo-coo.” Male cuckoos sing this song to attract females, and females sing a bubbly-sounding response during courtship rituals.

The cuckoo’s birdsong is musical and flute-like; it sounds very similar to the calls of some doves, specifically mourning doves and collared doves. The cuckoo’s song is distinguished by the fact that it has only two syllables, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

What Are Some Interesting Facts About Cuckoos?

  • Cuckoos are notorious for being brood parasites, which means the mother birds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving their young to be raised by foster parents. Check out the following video to see how they do this:
  • Only about 40 percent of cuckoos actually lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Many cuckoos build their own nests and raise their own young.
  • Most female cuckoos lay eggs in the afternoon.
  • The cuckoo clock makes the distinctive “coo-coo” sound every hour.
  • According to One Kind Planet, baby cuckoos are extremely demanding when they’re hungry. Sometimes they call so loudly that birds other than their parents or foster parents will feed them.
  • There are many superstitions related to cuckoos. One such superstition is that, if you have money in your pocket when you hear a cuckoo, you’ll have good luck.


Cuckoos have many unique qualities, such as their tendency toward brood parasitism, their flute-like “coo-coo” call, and their wide variation in colors and sizes. There are many different cuckoo species, and they are found on every continent on earth except Antarctica.

Read also about other forest birds – here are our guides about eagle, grackle, hawk.

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