Species of the Month - April 2016: Cuckoos

Cuckoo (image: Amy Lewis)Cuckoo (image: Amy Lewis)

This year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is running a new series taking a closer look at one key species of flora or fauna each month. For April, we are looking at cuckoos…

The cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

The cuckoo is the herald of spring with its soothing ‘coo-coo, coo-coo’ call but is heard less and less through our countryside as numbers have declined steeply.

A similar size to a pigeon, the cuckoo is blue-grey with dark bars running across its white underside. They have a sleek body, long tail and pointed wings. Males and females are similar, though only the males make the distinctive ‘coo-coo’ call; the females have a babbling call. Cuckoos are mostly shy and live solitary lives, except during the breeding season.

Reed Warbler (image: James Rodgerson)Male cuckoo displaying (image: Andy Morffew)The cuckoo is a brood parasite, which means it lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species, usually a much smaller songbird such as a reed warbler, meadow pipit, dunnock or robin. When the cuckoo egg hatches, the emerging chick will push the other eggs out of the nest, then grow fast and strong as the foster parent continues to feed just this one chick, soon dwarfing the small foster parent.

The cuckoo is the only 'brood parasite' to breed in Britain. A female will establish a territory encompassing a number of potential foster nests, and carefully observe activity, waiting until the nests are at the right stage. Female cuckoos usually lay fewer than 12 eggs in 12 different host nests each year. 

Caterpillars and other insects such as beetles and ants form the major part of the Cuckoo's diet. Many of the caterpillars they eat are hairy or brightly coloured poisonous ones, but they shake the toxins out of hairy caterpillars before eating them. The female will also sometimes eat the eggs and nestlings of the host bird.

Where to see them

Cuckoos usually arrive in the UK in late March to early April and hearing the first cuckoo of the season is always a thrill. They stay until July or August before beginning their migration to southern Asia and Africa in September to spend the winter. Cuckoos live in a broad variety of habitats, including woodland, marshes, heaths and alpine areas although recent population decline makes this a Red List species in the UK.

How to support cuckoos

Cuckoo (image: Amy Lewis)You can improve your garden for songbirds, on whom the cuckoo relies, by including bushy shrubs, hedges and trees, regularly putting out feed and including a bird bath or pond. The British Trust for Ornithology also run a cuckoo tracking programme to better help us understand the decline of this species.

The Wildlife Trusts work to create 'Living Landscapes': networks of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country, which are good for both wildlife and people. You can support this greener vision for the future by joining your local Wildlife Trust.

Get in touch

When you hear your first cuckoo please do let us know! You can submit records online at Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, email them to us at records@herefordshirewt.co.uk or write to us at Lower House Farm, Ledbury Road, Hereford, HR1 1UT.
Perching cuckoo (image: Amy Lewis)