Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Idioms, Wikipedia.
Related to cuckoo: Common Cuckoo


cuckoo, common name for members of the extensive avian family Cuculidae, including the ani and the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), widely distributed in temperate and tropical regions. Cuckoos are slender-bodied, long-tailed birds with medium to stout down-curved bills, pointed wings, short legs (except in the terrestrial species), and dull (usually grayish brown or rufous) plumage. They are generally insectivorous and arboreal.

Of the parasitic Old World cuckoos, the common European cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, is typical. The female visits the nests of smaller birds, selecting those whose eggs match hers in color, and replaces an egg of the host with one of her own; she usually lays four or five eggs, each at 48-hr intervals and each in a different nest. Because the female can retain an egg inside inside its body longer, leading to internal incubation, the embryo is more developed when the egg is laid. The young cuckoo, hatching earlier and being larger than its nest mates, displaces them from the nest and becomes the sole recipient of its foster parents' care.

Each species of Old World cuckoo has its own unique pattern of parasitism, and different species choose different host species for their eggs. The cuckoo is referred to in the Bible, by Aristotle and Pliny, in mythology, and in English poetry. Its nesting habits have given us the word cuckold, and its simple but musical song, which gives it its name, was used by Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony and is also imitated in the cuckoo clock.

The American cuckoos look like attenuated pigeons; they are not parasitic and build flimsy nests of twigs. Typical are the black-billed and yellow-billed (Coccyzus americanus) cuckoos, known for their low, chuckling call notes. They frequent and breed at the edges of deciduous woodlands, either species tending the young of the other. These birds are valued as destroyers of harmful insects—particularly the tent caterpillar, which few other birds will eat. There are also western and southern species.

Most gregarious of the cuckoos are the anis of the American tropics. The groove-billed ani, from 12 to 14 in. (30–35 cm) long, has black plumage with a faint purple gloss. Anis nest colonially, several females together laying as many as 25 eggs in the same nest, and they may breed at any time of the year.

Of the ground cuckoos, the roadrunner, or chaparral cock, of the southwest deserts is best known. It feeds mostly on small snakes and lizards, which it pounds to death with its heavy bill and swallows headfirst. The roadrunner speeds over the ground at up to 15 mi (24.14 km) per hr with its long tail extended horizontally, its head down, and its ragged crest erect. Roadrunners are weak fliers and nonmigratory. They build coarse nests in thorny bushes; because they lay at intervals, both eggs and young may appear together in the nest.

Also included in the cuckoo family are the coucals, medium to large in size, slow-flying, mostly terrestrial birds of the tropics from Africa to Australia, e.g., the black coucal, Centropus grillii. Cuckoos are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Cuculiformes, family Cuculidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



any one bird of the suborder Cuculi of the order Cuculiformes. The body measures 15–70 cm long. The bill is bent slightly downward, the tail is usually long and stepped (in some species the tail is forked). The legs are short, and the fourth toe may be directed backward; some ground species have long legs. The dense, short plumage is gray, black, white, or brown in color. The males and females usually have similar coloration. There is one family, the Cuculidae, which comprises six subfamilies (38 genera, 128 species).

Cuckoos are distributed throughout the world except for Antarctica; however, they are found primarily in the tropics. In the USSR there are six species. The common European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which measures approximately 35 cm long and weighs about 100 g, is found everywhere except in the tundra. The Himalayan cuckoo (C. saturatus) inhabits forests from Eastern Europe to the Far East. The Indian cuckoo (C micropterus) lives along the basin of the Amur River. The small cuckoo (C poliocephalus) and Hodgson’s hawk cuckoo (Hierococcyx fugax) are found in the forests of the southern Primor’e. The great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) from Moldavia and Turkmenia is found sporadically. All cuckoos that live in the USSR are migratory, wintering in southern Asia and Africa.

There are approximately 50 species of cuckoos (including all those found in the Soviet Union) that do not build nests and do not brood their eggs. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds (nest parasitism). Some species take over the nests of other birds but care for their own young; others build their own nests and raise their own young. The females lay from two to seven eggs. The cuckoo the common ani (Crotophaga ani) lays its eggs in a common nest and broods them communally. There are more than 120 known species of host birds, or foster parents, for the common European cuckoo; however, as a rule, cuckoos lay their eggs in only a few other species’ nests. In one particular region the cuckoo may use the nest of the redstart; in another, the nest of the sedge warbler. The color of the cuculine egg is similar to that of the host bird. Upon finding a nest, the cuckoo removes one of the host’s eggs (or less commonly, several eggs) by either eating it or carrying it off and replaces it with one of its own. The cuckoo lays from 12 to 20 eggs each summer. The embryo of the cuculine egg develops more rapidly than those of the host bird (usually in 12.5 days for the common European cuckoo). When the young cuckoo hatches, it throws out the foster parents’ eggs or newly hatched young. In 20 to 22 days the young common European cuckoo leaves the nest.

Although cuckoos destroy other birds and their nests, they are, at the same time, beneficial owing to their destruction of various harmful forest insects (particularly the hairy caterpillars of the silkworm moth). The American common ani feeds in flocks among herds of ungulates, destroying ticks and other parasitic insects. The roadrunner (Geococcyx mexicanus) lives in deserts and eats lizards and snakes. Some cuckoos, such as the crow pheasant (Centropus sinensis), eat fruits and berries.


Ptitsy Sovetskogo Soiuza, vol. 1. Edited by G. P. Dement’ev and N. A. Gladkov. Moscow, 1951.
Zhiznzhivotnykh, vol. 5. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(vertebrate zoology)
The common name for about 130 species of primarily arboreal birds in the family Cuculidae; some are social parasites.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


symbolizes adulterous betrayal by wife. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 395; Mercatante, 164]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


any bird of the family Cuculidae, having pointed wings, a long tail, and zygodactyl feet: order Cuculiformes. Many species, including the European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and have a two-note call
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Long-term conservation of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo on the Sacramento River will require process-based restoration.
"We oppose the listing of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, as we believe there is inadequate scientific basis for such a listing and it has the potential to reduce economic activity in the affected region," Lauren Willis, a spokeswoman for the comptroller's office, said in a statement.
A spokesman for Rowling said yesterday: "I'm afraid we're not commenting on the film rights for The Cuckoo's Calling."
To order The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith RRP PS16.99 at the special offer price of PS13.99 with free P&P, call the Mirror Bookshop on 0871 803 6772
FOUR cuckoos have been fitted with tags by Scottish researchers investigating the reasons behind the species' long-term decline.
These are tough times, and the trouble with the cuckoo is that he's a bit of a sponger.
This novelty clock has an hourly 'cuckoo in the woods' chime, opening doors; though he's silent from 9pm to 6am - so he won't be keeping you awake!
A nestling yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) of unknown sex was found at the base of a tree, unable to fly, and subsequently was presented to the Wildlife Hospital of Louisiana.
The eggs of the cuckoo bird are often larger and brighter then the other eggs in the nest where the mother cuckoo has parasitically laid an egg to be cared for by some other bird.
It appears that "The Cuckoo" was to Wordsworth what "Peacock" was to Darwin.
It's not easy being a cuckoo. For too many years these birds have been misrepresented and maligned, especially by the English language.
The Cuckoo Clock Museum in Knutsford, Cheshire, has more than 600 of the traditional Black Forest clocks and they take hours to reset.