Cuckoos Big and Small: Cuckoos vary greatly in size, but usually have slender bodies, long tails and strong legs.
Who Are You Calling Common?
The Common Cuckoo is a grayish bird with a slender body, long tail and strong legs. The females only are sometimes brown, during the “hepatic” phase. Some cuckoos look like small birds of prey in flight, although the wings stay below the horizontal.
Connoisseur of Insects: Most cuckoos live in forests, but some prefer more open country. Most are insect eaters, and love hairy caterpillars, which are avoided by many birds.
Common Cuckoo Characteristics: The Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is a member of the cuckoo order of birds, the Cuculiformes, which also includes the roadrunners, the anis, the coucals, and the Hoatzin. It is a widespread summer migrant to Europe and western Asia, and winters in Africa. It is a brood parasite, which lays its eggs in the nests particularly of Dunnocks, Meadow Pipits, and Reed Warblers.
Call of the Cuckoo: The cuckoo group gets its English and scientific names from the call of the male Common Cuckoo, usually given from an open perch, goo-ko. The female has a
loud bubbling call.
Not All Cuckoos Are Parasites:
Non-parasitic cuckoos, like most other non-passerines, lay white eggs, but many of the parasitic species lay colored eggs to match those of their passerine hosts.
But Many Are..
Female Cuckoos are divided into gentes, that is populations favoring a particular host species' nest and laying eggs
which match those of that species in color and pattern. The color pattern is inherited from the female only, suggesting that it is carried on the sex-determining W chromosome (females are WZ, males ZZ). It is notable that
most non-parasitic cuckoos lay white eggs, like most non-passerines other than ground nesters.
The exception is in the case of the Dunnock, where the Cuckoo's egg has no resemblance to its hosts' blue eggs. This is thought to be because the Dunnock is a recent host, and has not yet acquired the ability to distinguish eggs. Male Cuckoos breed with females without regard to gens. This results in gene flow between the gentes and maintains a common gene pool for the species.
Bad Neighbors: An individual female Common Cuckoo's territory will contain up to about 20 Reed Warbler's nests. Female Cuckoos spend a long time watching over the reed beds in their territory from the trees, and watch the behavior of the Reed Warblers as they build their nests and start their broods.
The female Cuckoo has to time her egg laying to just when the reed warblers start to lay eggs. It is not known how the hen cuckoo gets the timing right, as she cannot see the Reed Warblers' eggs from the trees, but it is likely that is it from the behavior of warblers.
Bad Eggs: At the appropriate moment the hen Cuckoo flies down to the reed warblers' nest, pushes one Reed Warbler egg out of the nest, lays an egg and flies off. The whole process is achieved in only about 10 seconds. At 14 days old, the Cuckoo chicks are about 3 times the size of the adult Reed Warblers. Cuckoo chicks fledge after about 20 -21 days after hatching, which is about twice as long as for Reed Warblers. If the hen cuckoo is out-of-phase with a clutch of Reed Warbler eggs, she will eat them all so that the hosts are forced to start another brood.
Problem Chicks: The Cuckoo chick methodically evicts all other young from the nest. It is a much larger bird than its hosts, and needs to monopolize the food supplied by the parents. The Cuckoo chick will roll the other eggs out of the nest by pushing them with its back over the edge. If the Reed Warbler's eggs hatch before the cuckoo's egg, the cuckoo chick will push the other chicks out of the nest in a similar way. Once the Reed Warbler chicks are out of the nest, the parents completely ignore them.
In England, hearing the call of the Cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring, and The Times newspaper notoriously features correspondence every year reporting the first calls.
In Russia, there's a popular belief that a cuckoo can predict how many more years a person will live. If a person hears a cuckoo in the woods, he or she usually asks "Cuckoo, cuckoo, how long will I live?". It is believed that a person will live as many years as a cuckoo cuckooed.
The word "cuckold" derives from the Cuckoo's practice of tricking other birds into raising its young.
What's in a Name? The group gets its English and scientific names from the call of the Common Cuckoo, which is also familiar from cuckoo clocks.
Classification Confusion: The order Cuculiformes, in addition to the cuckoos, also includes the turacos (family Musophagidae, sometimes treated as a separate order, Musophagiformes). Some zoologists have also included the unique Hoatzin in the Cuculiformes, though it is now placed in an order of its own, Opisthocomiformes. The taxonomy of this enigmatic species, however, remains in some dispute.
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