What does a cuckoo look like? And more cuckoo facts

Photograph of cuckoo
You're much more likely to hear a cuckoo than see one (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Have you clocked the cuckoo yet? Traditionally, the first cuckoo call of spring is supposed to be heard on 14 April but, in reality, they start arriving in the UK from the beginning of the month.

Where do cuckoos live?

Cuckoos spend the winter in Africa and start on the long journey back some time in the later summer, when their breeding season is over. A few years ago, scientists tagged some cuckoos to see how far they travelled and found that one clocked up 60,000 miles in three years!

What does a cuckoo call sound like?

Well, it goes ‘cuck-coo’, obviously. But sometimes people get it confused with the wood pigeon, which has a more throaty, continuous cooing sound.

When you hear a cuckoo, you’ll know it. It’s the male that makes the typical call. The female makes a gurgling sound, a bit like bath water going down the plughole.

Icon Sound Listen to the distinctive call of a male cuckoo.

What does a cuckoo look like?

The cuckoo is about the size of a dove, and is blue-grey with dark stripes across its tummy. You’re much more likely to hear one than see one though. The cuckoo you’re most likely to see is the one that pops out of a cuckoo clock!

Cuckoo in a tree against a blue sky
Cuckoos are rare now, but you'll know if you hear one! (Photo: Amy Lewis/WTML)

How do cuckoos lay their eggs?

The crafty cuckoo is famous for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests and getting them to bring up its chicks. Every year, the female lays up to 22 eggs, each one in a different nest. The most common foster parents are the meadow pipit, dunnock, robin and the different warblers.

A cuckoo usually has a target species and, amazingly, it can lay eggs that match the colour and markings of the hosts’ eggs. Scientists have found that some birds are getting better at spotting alien eggs in their nests though. The cuckoo’s egg hatches first and the greedy chick pushes the other eggs out of the nest so it gets all the food! Favourite snacks are insects and hairy caterpillars.

Cuckoo meaning and symbolism

There are lots of superstitions connected with the cuckoo. Some people believe that if you have money in your pocket when you hear a cuckoo, then you’ll be well off for the rest of the year. In the past, when young people heard their first cuckoo they’d count how many calls it made and that would tell them how many years it would be before they got married.

Heard your first cuckoo?

Sadly, like many other birds, cuckoo numbers are declining because of changes in the environment and climate. You can help scientists learn more about these changes by recording your first cuckoo call with Nature's Calendar.

Don’t forget to tell us about it in the comments below or on our Facebook page too.

Where did you hear your first cuckoo?

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