Birds of the World






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Cuculiformes - Cuckoos
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Musophagiformes, Cuculiformes, Opisthocomiformes
Families: Musophagidae - Plantain-eaters, Turacos, Go-away Birds
   Cuculidae - Cuckoos, Roadrunners, Anis
   Opisthocomidae -Hoatzins
Incubation times and nest parasitism
Knysna Turaco, Great Blue Turaco, European Cuckoo, Roadrunner, Smooth-billed Ani, Hoatzin
  Order Cuculiformes - Cuckoos
Wiki     ToL     EoL
  These are land birds related to parrots. True cuckoos occur on all continents and many islands; anis are found in Mexico, Central and South America, and roadrunners range from southwestern US to Argentina.
   Cuckoos are a diverse assemblage. They appear to be an ancient lineage with no close living relatives. Turacos and Cuckoos are not each-others closest living relatives but they have been associated in the literature for so long that it is easiest to keep them together. Clements (2007) lists them as families in the Cuculiformes. Sibley & Ahlquist (1990), discuss them together but place the Turacos in a separate order, the Order Musophagiformes and move the Musophagiformes to follow the swifts and hummingbirds and precede the owls...  Dickinson (2003) and Harris (2009) do not specify orders but list the families together along with the Hoatzin.
  Family Cuculidae - Cuckoos, Roadrunners, and Anis
Wiki     ToL     EoL
  142 species, 29 genera (Sibley and Monroe, 1990 - minus the Hoatzin). Clements lilsts 141 species. Dickinson, 2003, and Harris, 2009 list 138 species, 35 genera. All continents (but Antarctica) - cosmopolitan.
   The Family can be divided into the following groups (Sibley & Ahlquist, 1990, list them as families):
      CUCULIDAE - Old World Cuckoos (79 species, 17 genera)    Wiki     ToL
      CENTROPODIDAE - Coucals
 (30 species, 1 genus)    Wiki     ToL
      COCCYZIDAE - American Cuckoos
(18 species, 4 genera)    Wiki     ToL
      [OPISTHOCOMIDAE - Hoatzins]
      CROTOPHAGIDAE - Anis and the Guira Cuckoo 
(4 species, 2 genera    Wiki     Wiki     ToL
      NEOMORPHIDAE - Roadrunners, Ground Cuckoos
(11 species, 5 genera)     Wiki     Wiki     ToL

   Wiki divides the Family Cuculidae into Subfamililes:
      Subfamily Cuculinae - Brood-parasitic Cuckoos (51-53 species, 12 genera) Old World
         (long tails, short legs, long narrow wings, arboreal)
      Subfamily Phaenicophaeinae - Malkohas, Couas (24 species, 4 genera) Southern Asia
         (non-parasitic cuckoos - including ground-cuckoos; more terrestrial, strong, long legs, short, rounded wings; bright plumage, colored bare
          skin around the eye)
      Subfamily Coccyzinae - American Cuckoos (18 species, 2 genera) New World
      Subfamily Neororphinae - New World Ground-cuckoos (11 species, 6 genera) New World
         (long legged and terrestrial - includes the roadrunner)
      Subfamily Centropodinae - Coucals  (~30 species, 1 genus) Africa, Asia to Australia
         (terrestrial with long legs and tails, short wings)
      Subfamily Crotophaginae - Anis (4 species, 2 genera) New World
         (massive bills; smooth, glossy feathers - small and clumsy)

   Cuckoos live in forests or open brush. Many are brood parasites. They are medium to large slim-bodied birds with long tails,  and stout decurved bills. Lizard-cuckoos have longer bills with a hooked tip; anis have a laterally compressed bill with an arching maxilla. Their wings are rounded with 10 primaries and 9-13 secondaries. They are eutaxic. Wings are longer and more pointed in migratory species. The tail is longer than the body and they have (8) 10 remiges. Their legs are short. They have the fourth (outer) toe permanently reversed so two toes point forward and two backwards ("zygodactyl"). They are mostly arboreal. Ground-dwelling cuckoos are large with short wings, long tails, and long legs.
   They are desmognathous. Flexor tendons are Type 1. Pelvic muscles are variable - AFGXY+, ABFGXY+, or ABEFGXY+. Their nostrils are holorhinal and impervious. They have no cere.  The aftershaft is absent or small and they have "eyelashes." They have 14 cervical vertebrae and a perforated atlas. Their upper mandible is not movable and is not hooked. The oil gland is bilobed and naked or with a small tuft of down. Caeca are present. Four ribs reach the sternum.
   Cuckoos have diverse plumages and patterns. Many are relatively dark (with lighter underparts, often barred or streaked). Brood parasites are often cryptically colored. Their feathers are soft. Several tropical species are brightly colored - glossy cuckoos, Chrysoccoyx, have an iridescent plumage. Anis are black. There is usually little sexual dimorphism (it is most common in Old World brood parasites). The young of brood parasites resemble that of their hosts.
   Most are solitary but a few form flocks or are loosely colonial (anis are cooperative breeders). Most species are diurnal but many sing at night. They forage in foliage from leaf litter to tree canopies. When not feeding, they often sit quietly. Many species sunbathe. Cuckoos are found in forests and woodlands including rain forest, secondary growth, plantations, and mangrove swamps. Couas live in semi-arid scrub and roadrunners are found in hot-dry deserts. Parasitic species are common in a wide range of habitats - wherever suitable host species breed. Cuckoos eat insects, especially caterpillars (including, in some species, the poisonous hairy caterpillars avoided by most birds). They rub their prey on hard objects and then crush it with bony plates at the back of the mouth. They may eat other invertebrates and small frogs. Some feed on other birds' eggs and young. Lizard-cuckoos specialize in lizards. Some of the larger terrestrial species eat lizards, small snakes, rabbits, birds, mice, and scorpions. Some eat fruit - figs, berries and cactus fruits (koels, couas). Ground-cuckoos, Neomorphus, may feed in association with army ants. Anis feed on the ground, following cattle or other mammals as they feed.
   Cuckoos have distinctive calls - that of the Common Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, is well known from the variety of cuckoo-clocks. Our Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus, has a loud clacking, often given before rain - hence they are known locally as "rain crows"). Other sounds include whistles, screams, grunts, and hooting. Some cryptic species can be identified only by their calls.
   Most cuckoos are sedentary but several migrate. Some are diurnal migrants but our cuckoos migrate at night. The Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalamus, flies across the Caribbean to winter in South America.
    Nearly half of the species are brood parasites (54 in the Old World, 2-3 in the New World). Other cuckoos (malkohas, couas, coucals, ground-cuckoos) are monogamous and raise their own young and anis and the Guira Cuckoo, Guifa guira, are cooperative breeders. The African Black Coucal, Centropis grillii) is polygamous. Most non-parasitic cuckoos build fragile platform nests. Females lay 2-5 white eggs. Incubation lasts 11-16 days. Chicks are altricial. Young fledge in 16-24 days, often leaving the nest before they can fly.
   The Old World Common Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, defines brood parasitism. Female cuckoos watch host species as they build their nest (often a water pipit or Dunnock, Prunella modularis). The female visits the nest while the host is away and lays one egg after the host has laid her first (if there are more than one egg she may remove one or more (piercing it to be able to carry it or she may even eat the host egg). Common Cuckoos specialize and their eggs match those of the host in size (small for the size of the cuckoo) and pattern. [Parasitic cuckoos are grouped into gentes - host-specific "races" with each gens specializing in a specific host species.] If hosts recognize the foreign egg, they may eject it, cover it over and lay again, or abandon the nest. The incubation period of the cuckoo is relatively short. The cuckoo chick moves around the nest, humping other eggs or young out of the nest. Cuckoo chicks grow rapidly - often becoming much larger than the hosts. When the chick outgrows the nest, it perches nearby, calling constantly to be fed. Other species have a variety of patterns that insure their reproductive success at the expense of the host.
   There are 9 species  of New World Cuckoos placed in the genus Coccyzus. They are long-distance migrants traveling to South America in winter. Other North American cuculids include the Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, and two species of Anis, genus Crotophaga.
   Our cuckoos are usually solitary - often shy and hard to observe. When they fly, they often move from deep in one tree to deep in another. They are often given away by their song. We are most likely to see or hear the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus.
  European Cuckoo Roadrunner

Smooth-billed Ani

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophaga ani.
Trincity, Trinidad
Photo by Ed Konrad

European Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus
Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus
Woodcuts from Brehms Tierleben, 1892

Among passerines, many of the smaller birds have an incubation period of 11-12 or more days. About the shortest reliable minimum date for incubation is 10 days - and that is a really remarkable time for all the the changes that take place from laying through hatching. Periods shorter than 10 days are probably recorded in error. Note that some cuckoos, although not passerines, have incubation periods that match these minimal lengths. It is obvious that a nest parasite needs a short incubation time - they need their egg to hatch first (ideally) or with the remaining eggs. They probably time their egg laying using the host cycle. The Common Cuckoo may actually have a 9-day incubation period to insure an early hatch. (They also stack the deck by removing the host's eggs.). Thus our North American cuckoos do show some pre-adaptation for nest parasitism by having a short incubation time...