Cuculidae – Old World Cuckoos

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus ©Craig Brelsford Website

The Cuculidae or cuckoos are a family of birds, which are the sole taxon in the order Cuculiformes. The family includes the common or European cuckoo, roadrunners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals and anis. The coucals and anis have sometimes been separated as distinct families, the Centropodidae and Crotophagidae respectively.

The cuckoos are generally medium-sized slender birds. The majority are arboreal, with a sizeable minority that are terrestrial. The family has a cosmopolitan distribution, with the majority of species being tropical. Some species are migratory. The cuckoos feed on insects, insect larvae and a variety of other animals, as well as fruit. Many species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species, but the majority of species raise their own young.

Cuckoos have played a role in human culture for thousands of years, appearing in Greek mythology as sacred to the goddess Hera. In Europe, the cuckoo is associated with spring, and with cuckoldry, for example in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost. In India, cuckoos are sacred to Kamadeva, the god of desire and longing, whereas in Japan, the cuckoo symbolises unrequited love.

About 56 of the Old World species and 3 of the New World species (Pheasant, Pavonine, and Striped) are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. These species are obligate brood parasites, meaning that they only reproduce in this fashion. The best-known example is the European Common Cuckoo. In addition to the above noted species, yet others sometimes engage in non-obligate brood parasitism, laying their eggs in the nests of members of their own species in addition to raising their own young. The shells of the eggs of brood-parasites are usually thick. They have two distinct layers with an outer chalky layer that is believed to provide resistance to cracking when the eggs are dropped in the host nest. The cuckoo egg hatches earlier than the host’s, and the cuckoo chick grows faster; in most cases the chick evicts the eggs or young of the host species. The chick has no time to learn this behaviour, so it must be an instinct passed on genetically. The chick encourages the host to keep pace with its high growth rate with its rapid begging call and the chick’s open mouth which serves as a sign stimulus.

Cuckoos have various strategies for getting their egg into a host nest. Different species use different strategies based on host defensive strategies. Female cuckoos have secretive and fast laying behaviours, but in some cases, males have been shown to lure host adults away from their nests so that the female can lay her egg in the nest. Some host species may directly try to prevent cuckoos laying eggs in their nest in the first place – birds whose nests are at high risk of cuckoo-contamination are known to ‘mob’ cuckoos to drive them out of the area. Parasitic cuckoos are grouped into gentes, with each gens specialising in a particular host. There is some evidence that the gentes are genetically different from one another.

The IOC considered there to be 147 species of Couas, Cuckoos, Koels, Anis, Coucals and Malkohas within the family Cuculidae; they are:

Guira Cuckoo Guira guira

Greater Ani Crotophaga major
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani
Groove-billed Ani Crotophaga sulcirostris

Striped Cuckoo Tapera naevia

Pheasant Cuckoo Dromococcyx phasianellus
Pavonine Cuckoo Dromococcyx pavoninus

Lesser Ground Cuckoo Morococcyx erythropygus

Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus
Lesser Roadrunner Geococcyx velox

Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo Neomorphus geoffroyi
Scaled Ground Cuckoo Neomorphus squamiger
Banded Ground Cuckoo Neomorphus radiolosus
Rufous-winged Ground Cuckoo Neomorphus rufipennis
Red-billed Ground Cuckoo Neomorphus pucheranii

Buff-headed Coucal Centropus milo
White-necked Coucal Centropus ateralbus
Ivory-billed Coucal Centropus menbeki
Biak Coucal Centropus chalybeus
Rufous Coucal Centropus unirufus
Green-billed Coucal Centropus chlororhynchos
Black-faced Coucal Centropus melanops
Black-hooded Coucal Centropus steerii
Short-toed Coucal Centropus rectunguis
Bay Coucal Centropus celebensis
Gabon Coucal Centropus anselli
Black-throated Coucal Centropus leucogaster
Senegal Coucal Centropus senegalensis
Blue-headed Coucal Centropus monachus
Coppery-tailed Coucal Centropus cupreicaudus
White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus
Burchell’s Coucal Centropus burchellii
Sunda Coucal Centropus nigrorufus
Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis
Malagasy Coucal Centropus toulou
Goliath Coucal Centropus goliath
Black Coucal Centropus grillii
Philippine Coucal Centropus viridis
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Violaceous Coucal Centropus violaceus
Black-billed Coucal Centropus bernsteini
Pheasant Coucal Centropus phasianinus
Andaman Coucal Centropus andamanensis

Bornean Ground Cuckoo Carpococcyx radiceus
Sumatran Ground Cuckoo Carpococcyx viridis
Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo Carpococcyx renauldi

Crested Coua Coua cristata
Verreaux’s Coua Coua verreauxi
Blue Coua Coua caerulea
Red-capped Coua Coua ruficeps
Red-fronted Coua Coua reynaudii
Coquerel’s Coua Coua coquereli
Running Coua Coua cursor
Giant Coua Coua gigas
Red-breasted Coua Coua serriana

Raffles’s Malkoha Rhinortha chlorophaea

Blue Malkoha Ceuthmochares aereus
Green Malkoha Ceuthmochares australis

Sirkeer Malkoha Taccocua leschenaultii

Red-billed Malkoha Zanclostomus javanicus

Yellow-billed Malkoha Rhamphococcyx calyorhynchus

Chestnut-breasted Malkoha Phaenicophaeus curvirostris
Red-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus
Chestnut-bellied Malkoha Phaenicophaeus sumatranus
Blue-faced Malkoha Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
Black-bellied Malkoha Phaenicophaeus diardi
Green-billed Malkoha Phaenicophaeus tristis

Rough-crested Malkoha Dasylophus superciliosus
Scale-feathered Malkoha Dasylophus cumingi

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus
Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius
Levaillant’s Cuckoo Clamator levaillantii
Jacobin Cuckoo Clamator jacobinus

Little Cuckoo Coccycua minuta
Dwarf Cuckoo Coccycua pumila
Ash-colored Cuckoo Coccycua cinerea

Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana
Black-bellied Cuckoo Piaya melanogaster

Dark-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus melacoryphus
Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus
Pearly-breasted Cuckoo Coccyzus euleri
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor
Cocos Cuckoo Coccyzus ferrugineus
Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Grey-capped Cuckoo Coccyzus lansbergi
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo Coccyzus pluvialis
Bay-breasted Cuckoo Coccyzus rufigularis
Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus vetula
Great Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus merlini
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus vieilloti
Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus longirostris

Thick-billed Cuckoo Pachycoccyx audeberti

Dwarf Koel Microdynamis parva

Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus
Black-billed Koel Eudynamys melanorhynchus
Pacific Koel Eudynamys orientalis

Pacific Long-tailed Cuckoo Urodynamis taitensis

Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae

Asian Emerald Cuckoo Chrysococcyx maculatus
Violet Cuckoo Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus
Diederik Cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius
Klaas’s Cuckoo Chrysococcyx klaas
Yellow-throated Cuckoo Chrysococcyx flavigularis
African Emerald Cuckoo Chrysococcyx cupreus
Long-billed Cuckoo Chrysococcyx megarhynchus
Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx basalis
Black-eared Cuckoo Chrysococcyx osculans
Rufous-throated Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx ruficollis
Shining Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus
White-eared Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx meyerii
Little Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx minutillus

Pallid Cuckoo Cacomantis pallidus
White-crowned Cuckoo Cacomantis leucolophus
Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo Cacomantis castaneiventris
Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis
Banded Bay Cuckoo Cacomantis sonneratii
Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus
Grey-bellied Cuckoo Cacomantis passerinus
Brush Cuckoo Cacomantis variolosus
Rusty-breasted Cuckoo Cacomantis sepulcralis
Moluccan Cuckoo Cacomantis aeruginosus

Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo Cercococcyx mechowi
Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo Cercococcyx olivinus
Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo Cercococcyx montanus

Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus velutinus
Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris
Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus dicruroides
Moluccan Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus musschenbroeki

Moustached Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx vagans
Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides
Dark Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx bocki
Common Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx varius
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus
Philippine Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx pectoralis
Malaysian Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx fugax
Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx nisicolor

Black Cuckoo Cuculus clamosus
Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius
Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus
Sulawesi Cuckoo Cuculus crassirostris
Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus
Madagascan Cuckoo Cuculus rochii
African Cuckoo Cuculus gularis
Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus
Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus
Sunda Cuckoo Cuculus lepidus
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 147

Useful Reading
  • Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

    by Nick Davies | Bloomsbury | 2015 | Hardback | 320 pages, 8 plates with colour illustrations
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 9781408856567 Buy this book from
  • Cuckoos of the World

    By Johannes Erritzøe, Clive F Mann, Frederik P Brammer, Richard A Fuller, Richard Allen, Jan Wilczur, Martin Woodcock & Tim Worfolk | 544 Pages | 36 Plates | Colour Illustrations | Colour Photos | Distribution Maps | Christopher Helm | 2012
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 9780713660340 Buy this book from
  • Cuckoos, Cowbirds & Other Cheats

    N B Davies - T & AD Poyser 2000 ISBN: 0856611352 Buy this book from
  • The Cuckoos

    by Robert B Payne [Illustrated by Karen Klitz] OUP 2005 ISBN: 0198502133 Buy this book from
Other Links
  • Australian Cuckoos

    The Koel and Channel-Billed Cuckoo are both types of cuckoo, and they must be shy because in all the time I have lived in Sydney I have only seen one Koel and I’ve never seen a Channel-Billed Cuckoo. When I found the Koel in my back yard I had to research in my bird book to determine what type of bird I’d just discovered.…
Photographers & Artists
  • Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis

    Excellent image from IBC
  • White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus

  • White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus

    Excellent image

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