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Feature Creature - Cuckoo

Credits: Amy Lewis

This feature creature is the CUCKOO! These famous birds are the heralds of spring. Their unmistakeable call can be heard from April onward, and their sneaky egg-laying behaviour keeps them busy into the summer. But have you ever seen one? Keep an eye out in August for giant youngsters as they prepare for migration to Africa.

Fantastic facts:


*Favourite foods: large hairy caterpillars     *Enemies: birds of prey, habitat destruction


*Where found: scrub and wetlands across the UK in summer, Africa in winter


*Special power: masters of disguise. Some cuckoos may be able to match their eggs to those in their chosen nest, making it less likely for the real owners to notice the new addition. Clever!


*Latin name: Cuculus canorus     *Life span: around 6 years in the wild


But what are these cunning birds and what can they do? Cuckoos are:




If there's one thing everyone knows about cuckoos, it's that they're lazy parents! Well, perhaps lazy isn't quite the right word. How about clever? Instead of building their own nests and raising their own young, cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other species. 

After laying a single egg in a nest, the female cuckoo leaves, never to see her youngster again. The egg often hatches first, and the chick gets straight to work pushing everything else out of the nest. Cuckoo chicks have big appetites, and they don't like sharing!


The unfortunate host birds then take on the duties of parents and feed the chick, unaware that this trickster isn't their own. The chick will even outgrow its new, proud parents, reaching several times their size!   


Did you know?  A female cuckoo may visit as many as 50 nests in one year. If nest owners spot her, they may mob her and try to chase her away.




Sadly, the call of the cuckoo is becoming a rare sound in the UK, as fewer and fewer of them return to breed here every year. Surprisingly, we know very little about the habits of cuckoos and where they go, making their conservation very difficult.


There are a few things that might be putting them in danger. Some scientists think that there aren't enough host nests for cuckoos to lay their eggs in. Female cuckoos like to look for the nests of same kind of bird that raised them. These are often dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers. Others think that their favourite food - the huge, hairy caterpillars that other birds don't like - might also be disappearing. 



But one of the biggest dangers cuckoos face is the long journey they make to reach the UK. If food is short, the is weather bad or the habitat destroyed on their way, they could be struggling to get here. With the help of special little cuckoo backpacks, scientists are now following them on their migration to try to find out what might be happening to them and where they go so that they can help them better in the future. Find out more about how cuckoos are being satellite-tracked and follow their journey on the BTO website.


Did you know? Cuckoos are often mistaken for birds of prey as their colourings and shape are very similar. You may have seen one and not even know it!


Images: (c) Amy Lewis