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Cuculiformes (Cuckoos, Anis, and Roadrunners)

Cuculiformes

Cuckoos, anis, and roadrunners

(Cuculidae)

Class Aves

Order Cuculiformes

Suborder Cuculi

Family Cuculidae

Number of families 1


Thumbnail description
Small to medium-sized landbirds, with slightly curved and narrow bills, zygodactyl feet and long tails, and usually inconspicuous colors, generally light gray or light brown to black

Size
6.3–27.6 in (16–70 cm); 0.03–1.11 lb (17–550 g)

Number of genera, species
38 genera; 129 species

Habitat
Mainly forest and woodland, although some species live in open countries and semi-arid regions

Conservation status
Critically Endangered: 2 species; Endangered: 1 species; Vulnerable: 6 species; Near Threatened: 9 species; Extinct (since 1600): 1

Distribution
Present on all continents except Antarctica

Evolution and systematics

Cuckoos owe their popularity to their fascinating reproductive strategy, the so-called brood parasitism. Brood parasites are those bird species that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, or hosts, who then raise the parasitic young. The family Cuculidae belongs to the order Cuculiformes and includes 38 genera and 129 species within six subfamilies: Cuculinae (Old World cuckoos), Phaenicophaeinae (malkohas and couas), Centropodinae (coucals), Coccyzinae (American cuckoos), Crotophaginae (anis), and Neomorphinae (New World ground cuckoos, roadrunners). Of these, only Cuculinae and Neomorphinae present the existing 50 obligate brood parasitic species. Molecular phylogenetics indicate that cuckoos are not closely related to any other family of birds, despite their morphologic similarity to the turacos, doves, and some parrots.

Old World cuckoos are most closely related to the malkohas, which are similar to the coucals; American cuckoos are most closely related to the anis, which, in turn, are most closely related to the New World ground cuckoos. Studies based on single or a few traits, such as skeletal characters, arrive at different relationships within the family, although most studies support the existence of the above named six subfamilies. A phylogeny based on 28 behavioral and ecological characters suggests that Neomorphinae and Phaenicophaeinae are polyphyletic groups, placing the obligate parasite Tapera (Neomorphinae) and the facultative parasite Coccyzus (Phaenicophaeinae) within the Cuculinae. This would imply that brood parasitism arose only once in the evolutionary history of cuckoos. However, a molecular phylogeny supports the monophyly of three main clades: Cuculinae, Phaenicophaeinae, and Neomorphinae-Crotophaginae, with parasitic species within the three of them, thus postulating that brood parasitism had a polyphyletic origin. Clamator, traditionally situated within the Cuculinae, is grouped in this phylogeny with the Phaenicophaeinae.

Physical characteristics

Cuckoos and their relatives are terrestrial, all capable of flight. They present zygotactyl feet, with inner and outer toes directed backwards and the other two toes facing forwards. The bill curves downward slightly with a protruding hook at the tip of the upper mandible. Cuckoos usually have inconspicuous colors, such as light gray or light brown to deep red-brown and black. The plumage is usually shiny or shimmering. The basic color is often overshadowed by light or dark transverse bands and less often by longitudinal striping, particularly below, on the wings, and the tail. White areas also occur. The feather shafts may be shiny and stand out as white. Aside from the large yellow and green areas of some Chrysoccocyx species, the only vivid colors in cuckoos are the frequently colored bills, the red eyes (mostly in older birds), and the colored or sometimes black, naked areas about the eyes. The

plumage is cryptically colored in many brood-parasitic species, and may be adaptive to ecological problems of recognition and social association with their hosts. The juvenal plumage of common koels (Eudynamys scolopacea) somewhat resembles that of their host species, differing between geographical areas where they parasitize different hosts. Sexual dimorphism in plumage occurs in very few species, among them some malkohas, the African and Asian glossy cuckoos, and the common koel. Males and females are the same in size for most species, although they occasionally differ.

Distribution

The Cuculidae occur throughout America, Eurasia, Australia, and Africa. In America, they are absent from the most southern areas as well as a wide region in the north. In Africa there is a gap in their distribution in the northern third of the continent, coinciding with the Sahara Desert, and this gap extends to Arabia and nearby deserts. Finally, there are no cuckoos in the cold areas situated to the very north of Asia. Species differ widely in the extension of their distribution areas. Some of them present vast geographic distributions, such as the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which occurs from the Iberian Peninsula to Japan and Siberia to India, with individuals wintering in South Africa. The dark-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus melacoryphus), the greater ani (Crotophaga major), and the American striped cuckoo (Tapera naevia) are present in most of South Africa. However, it is more common for cuckoo species to have a more limited distribution. For example, some Cuculus are characteristic of a few islands in the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra; Cercococcyx spp. occurs in small areas of Africa; couas (Coua spp.) are endemic of Madagascar, and the green-billed coucal (Centropus chlororhynchus) occurs only in Sri Lanka.

Habitat

Most cuckoo species are arboreal and live in trees, many of them in the tropics and subtropics. The forests inhabited by most species are unspoiled primary rainforests, which are the only habitat for several species in Asia. Other cuckoos appear in different kind of forests, mangroves, and marshes, as well as human-made habitats such as plantations, city parks, and gardens. Several cuckoos live in open country and semiarid, hot areas in Australia, Mexico, and Central America. Brood parasites occur in virtually any possible place where potential hosts can be found. The best example is the common cuckoo, whose list of potential hosts exceeds 125, and as a consequence can be found nearly anywhere. The altitudinal range occupied by cuckoos is also wide, but the majority of species live in low lands, with few going above 6,600 ft (2,000 m). In fact, most examples of cuckoos at high altitudes are birds on passage, in places such as the Himalayas or Andes.

Behavior

Social organization

Cuckoos are mainly solitary birds, living on their own, or in pairs, during the breeding season, but a number of species are colonial, living in groups all year. Anis (Crotophaga spp.) and the Guira cuckoo (Guira guira) live in social groups in which several pairs or females share a nest. These four species can be considered cooperative breeders.

Social behavior and communication

Most species possess very characteristic calls that are easy to identify. These calls vary from whistles in some Cuculus, to screams in great spotted cuckoos (Clamator glandarius), rattles in the roadrunner, and guttural sounds in the ground cuckoos. Songs and calls of cuckoos are remarkably similar throughout their range. Calls are used to announce territories and attract mates, and thus most variations in calls are given by males during the breeding season, when males may call all day. Females generally do not call, or they may utter a shorter version of the male call. Communication in social contexts usually involves calls, chatters, and a variety of displays.

Territoriality

Not much is known about the territorial behavior of cuckoos in the nonbreeding season. During the breeding season most cuckoos are territorial, with cooperative breeders and monogamous species defending territories around their nests. Less clear is what happens to brood parasites. In some species females seem to use a discrete, exclusive area for laying, whereas in others, such as in the case of the great spotted cuckoo, the laying areas widely overlap.

Feeding ecology and diet

Cuckoos are basically insectivorous, specializing in caterpillars, including many hairy, noxious species avoided by other birds. The common cuckoo and the great spotted cuckoo, for example, eat the hairy caterpillars of the processionary moth. Cuckoos are also generalized predators that take grasshoppers, cicadas, spiders, and other insects. Some species take tree frogs, snails, lizards, and even other birds. It is well-known that some parasitic species not only lay in a host's nest but also prey upon its eggs and chicks. A few species such as some koels and the channel-billed cuckoo, are vegetarians, feeding mainly, but not exclusively, on fruit.

Reproductive biology

Mating system

Most cuckoo species are monogamous and, in fact, even within the groups of cooperative anises, there seems to exist distinctive pairs of male and female. At least a few species (Coccyzus pumilus and Centropus grillii, for example) show polyandrous mating arrangements, where a female copulates with several males. The mating system of the common cuckoo in Japan has been characterized as polygamous, with substantial numbers of both males and females having multiple partners. Great spotted cuckoos in southern Spain also show polygamous mating arrangements, although most individuals seem to be genetically monogamous.

Brood parasitism

One of the most striking reproductive strategies of the animal kingdom is brood parasitism, a term intimately associated with cuckoos, although at least 78 cuckoo species take care of their young themselves. Fifty cuckoo species are obligate brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species, the hosts, who then carry out all parental duties. A few more species are facultative brood parasites, and besides building their own nest, they sometimes lay eggs in the nests of other species. Most of our information on cuckoo brood parasitism comes from the common cuckoo and the great spotted cuckoo. Other reasonably well-studied brood parasites are some of the Chrysococcyx species, the common koel, and the American striped cuckoo.

Host bird species

The majority of hosts chosen as "foster parents" by parasitic cuckoos are passerines. Most hosts are insectivorous, although parasitic cuckoos do not exclude blossom-visitors, nor those of mixed diet, nor even seed eaters, such as buntings. The host birds may either nest openly or in hollows of any kind. Among them are birds smaller than the wren, yet ravens are also included. Birds weighing from as little as 0.2 oz (7 g) and up to about 2 lb (1,000 g) will rear foster young who will weigh about 0.05–2 lb (25–1,000 g) by the time they are ready to feed for themselves.

The number of known hosts of the various cuckoo species ranges from only a few to the more than 125 recorded for the common cuckoo. There exists a distinction between "generalists" and "specialists" parasites. The first, such as the common

cuckoo, uses many hosts regularly whereas specialists show preferences for one or a few species. For example, the main host of great spotted cuckoos in Europe is the magpie (Pica pica), although they can be found in the nests of other passerines as well. This distinction between generalists and specialists is a controversial one, since even in the extreme case of common cuckoos each female seems to parasitize only one host, thus deserving the term specialist rather than generalist. Cuckoos of the genera Chrysoccocyx and Cuculus are specific to a discrete group of primary hosts, although there may be considerable overlap between species in the use of secondary hosts. Some authors suggest that most cuckoos are host specific, at least group-specific, as a consequence of competition between various cuckoo species within one territory; that is, competition is avoided by choosing different hosts.

The main hosts of cuckoos vary depending on the distribution of the parasitic cuckoo. The common cuckoo has some 15 main hosts over Europe, and more if one considers its entire area of distribution. Wagtails and reed warblers are main hosts, or at least preferred hosts, almost everywhere. However, in some places other species are preferentially parasitized: in Japan one of the main hosts of common cuckoos is the azure-winged magpie. Great spotted cuckoos, on the other hand, show a clear preference towards magpies in Europe, whereas they parasitize mainly crows and starlings in Africa.

Coevolutionary interactions between hosts and parasites

Brood parasitism strongly reduces host reproductive success. This takes place in three manners. Firstly, females of some species (Cuculus, for example) remove one or more host eggs at laying. Secondly, parasitism often reduces hatching success of the remaining host eggs; great spotted cuckoos, for example, crack or peck some eggs in the magpie clutches they parasitize. Finally, cuckoo nestlings inflict severe host losses in two ways: either the newly hatched cuckoo chick evicts all the eggs or young in the nest, or cuckoo chicks drive their foster siblings to starvation by monopolizing parental care. Thus natural selection strongly favors any kind of behavior or trait that counters the negative effect of parasitism. These

adaptations against parasitism put pressures on the parasitic species to develop counteradaptations against host defenses. Hosts and parasites are then engaged in a so-called "evolutionary arms-race" in which adaptations on one side produce the evolution of counteradaptations on the other.

Biological cuckoo races

One of the most studied adaptations of parasites to egg rejection by hosts is the development of egg mimicry. Frequently the eggs of parasitic cuckoos are very similar to the eggs of their host species. The eggs of the lesser cuckoo in Japan are chocolate-colored and laid beside those of Blyth's reed warbler, whose eggs are the same color but much smaller. Great spotted cuckoos lay eggs that are very similar in color and size to magpie eggs, being only slightly different in shape. However, the best example is again the common cuckoo: although this species is able to lay about 15–20 different types of eggs, each female lays a single type (presumably throughout her life) that in most cases is a nearly perfect copy of a particular host's eggs. Among them are egg types that closely resemble the eggs of warblers, shrikes, pipits, or redstarts. Then there are mixed types, such as the ones resembling those of the robin and the ones resembling those of the red-backed shrike. As females only lay one kind of egg, it has been long argued that the common cuckoo is divided into "gentes" or host races, lineages of females that parasitize a main host and whose eggs resemble the eggs of this host. The mimicry is a counteradaptation to the ability of hosts to discriminate and reject cuckoo eggs. Detailed molecular studies support this idea, proving that individual females only lay one kind of egg and preferentially in a single host, although mistakes are possible. These studies support the hypothesis that gentes are restricted to female lineages, with cross-mating by males to maintain the cuckoo genetically as a species. They are also consistent with the idea that genes affecting egg type are located in the female-specific W sex chromosome, and that the female cuckoo places her eggs in the nests of the bird species that has raised her. In so doing the cuckoo submits her eggs to rejection by the same species and, thus, subjects them to a continuing process of natural selection.

Nest and nest building

Brood parasitic species do not build any nest. However, the remaining species do so in a variety of forms. Malkohas and relatives (Phaenicophaeinae) build shallow nests in trees. Coucals build domed nests of grass and leaves. The Coccyzinae build saucer-shaped nests in trees. Cooperative breeders use a flat or shallow bowl in a tree. Roadrunners build nests with a platform of sticks that may be in the ground or on top of a bush or tree.

Cuckoo eggs

The appearance of cuckoo eggs varies extraordinarily. The eggs of the common cuckoo can be a solid white, blue or a loam-yellow, or they may have markings, closely resembling the eggs of the host birds. The eggs of many cuckoo species always have the same monotones: white, blue, shades ranging from blue-green to yellow-green, or red-brown to chocolate-brown. In others the monotone background is overlaid with a thick, white, chalky layer. Spotted eggs almost always represent adaptation to host eggs by natural selection. Non-parasitic cuckoos always lay solid-color eggs without the chalky overlay, or at most a thin one. Presumably the original eggs of the entire cuckoo phylum looked like these.

The size of the eggs varies between 2% and 25% of the weight of the female; relatively speaking, the smallest eggs are those of the channel-billed cuckoo and the largest are those of the greater ani. Parasites who prey upon small songbirds usually lay relatively small eggs; those who parasitize crows as host birds lay correspondingly larger ones. The weight of the common cuckoo's egg averages 0.1 oz (0.08–0.16 oz; 2.3–4.5 g); the eggs are almost always a little larger than the host's eggs and differ from them in their broad oval shape.

Parasitic cuckoo eggs usually have a harder and thicker shell than those of the hosts and are thus especially protected against breakage. The egg of a warbler, for example, cannot support a load greater than 20.9 lb (9.5 kg), while a cuckoo egg will break only under a load greater than 30.2 lb (13.7 kg).

Clutch size

Nonparasitic species have a clutch size that varies, comprising only a few eggs. Parasitic species are characterized by larger clutch sizes, although it is difficult to determine their average. Molecular studies have assigned between four and 12 eggs to great spotted cuckoo females. Common cuckoos always lay just one egg in a nest, and it seems clear that this is because a second egg would have no success, being evicted by the first chick after hatching. If a nest contains two or even three cuckoo eggs, they are most likely from different females. Some other cuckoo species more frequently lay several eggs in the same nest. As many as 16 eggs from the koel have been found in one nest and 13 from the great spotted cuckoo in Africa; it is in these species (koels and Clamator cuckoos) that several chicks may be raised since they do not kill their foster siblings. In this case we assume that several females may lay in a single host nest. In great spotted cuckoos molecular parentage analyses confirmed that multiple parasitized magpie nests are the product of both a female laying several eggs in a single nest and several females (up to three) laying one or more eggs in the same nest.

Duration of incubation, young cuckoos

As far as we know parasitic cuckoos require only a short incubation period; the information we have on this indicates 10 or 11 to 15 days. It would be logical to assume that self-brooding cuckoos, too, originally had a short brooding period. But this cannot be reconciled with the long brooding period of the self-brooding roadrunner, which lasts 18 days.

Most cuckoo chicks grow rapidly, even those of non-parasitic species; some of them may leave the nest in as early as 10 days, while the larger species can take up to 20 days. In fact nestlings of parasitic species tend to stay longer in the nests, as much as twice the nestling period of non-parasitic species of the same size: 18–26 days.

Common cuckoos leave the nest at an age of 16–24 days. After they have flown out, young cuckoos will still beg insistently and get food not only from their foster parents, but also from other birds. Songbirds often sway in the air before the giant baby, or perch on its back, or insert their heads deeply into its throat. In about 21 days after it has left the nest the young cuckoo is independent. Most parasitic species monopolize parental care of their foster parents for several weeks after fledging.

Conservation status

Although the real conservation status of most cuckoos is not well-known, they are assumed to be fairly common and under no immediate threat. The only species at risk of declining are those of tropical forests and those on islands with small populations. Among the species considered at risk are Centropus steerii, confined to Mindoro, Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus, Carpococcyx viridis, Centropus nigrorufus, and a few more species living on islands.

Significance to humans

Cuckoos are of no special significance to humans, although they are particularly popular due to their breeding habits. The term cuckold is used in several languages to refer to a man cheated by his wife. They also are called rainbirds in many places because they seem to anticipate rain with their calls early in the rainy season. Nestling coucals are eaten for medicinal purposes in Borneo.

Species accounts

List of Species

Great spotted cuckoo
Thick-billed cuckoo
Common hawk-cuckoo
Common cuckoo
Dideric cuckoo
Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo
Banded bay cuckoo
Asian drongo-cuckoo
Common koel
Long-tailed koel
Channel-billed cuckoo
Green-billed malkoha
Blue coua
Greater coucal
Greater ani
Yellow-billed cuckoo
Greater roadrunner
American striped cuckoo
Pheasant cuckoo

Great spotted cuckoo

Clamator glandarius

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus glandarius Linnaeus, 1758, northern Africa and Gibraltar. A smaller race, choragium, described from South Africa.

other common names

French: Coucou geai; German: Häherkuckuck; Spanish: Críalo Europeo.

physical characteristics

13.8–15.4 in (35–39 cm); 0.25 lb (124 g). Thirteen cervical vertebrae and a feather crest. Dusky brown, flight feathers gray-brown, tail tipped white, crown gray and face black, eye ring gray to red, bill black. Juveniles have crown and face black, and flight feathers rufous.

distribution

Iberian Peninsula, South France, Turkey and Cyprus, Iran and Iraq, Middle East to Egypt. Sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia. North Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, and South Africa. All populations winter in Africa.

habitat

Semi-arid open woodland, scrubs, and cultivation; in Europe open areas; oak and pine forests, also olive and almond groves. Below 6,600 ft (2,000 m).

behavior

Harsh guttural voice: "gah, gah, gah…gak, gak, gak…ko, ko, ko," falling in pitch and increasing in tempo. Easy to see in pairs at the beginning of the breeding season; male feeds caterpillars

to the female. Evidence for absence of territorial behavior during breeding season in southern Spain. Adults breeding in the Iberian Peninsula winter in southern Africa. Birds in West Africa are local migrants, although there are some residents.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, mainly caterpillars, also termites, grasshoppers, and moths. Feeds on trees, sometimes on the ground.

reproductive biology

Mainly monogamous, although polygamous mating arrangements occur. Brood parasitic; the magpie is its main host in the Mediterranean, also crows are used, and starlings in Africa. There is no ejection of host eggs by nestlings. They lay a large number of eggs (maybe up to 25, 12 for sure), distributed over many nests of hosts. Over extensive regions there is only one egg type. Incubation 12–15 days, shorter than hosts. There may be more than one chick per magpie nest successfully fledging. It fledges as soon as 16 days, fed by foster parents for one to two more months. Young form social groups attended by magpies.

conservation status

Not globally threatened. Generally uncommon throughout most of its range, expanding in South Europe and Middle East.

significance to humans

None known.


Thick-billed cuckoo

Pachycoccyx audeberti

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus audeberti Schlegel, 1879, Madagascar. Three subspecies recognized.

other common names

French: Coucou d'Audebert; German: Dickschnabelkuckuck; Spanish: Crialo Piquigrueso.

physical characteristics

14.2 in (36 cm), 0.23 lb (115 g). Adult gray above, lores white, wings blackish, tail barred brown and black; white below; eye ring yellow, iris brown. Bill blackish or yellow. Its appearance and call, "Ooy-yes-yes," are reminiscent of a hawk.

distribution

Sierra Leone through Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon to Congo and Zaire, Kenya and Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. P. a. audeberti confined to Madagascar.

habitat

Miombo woodlands, lowlands, and riverine forests.

behavior

Non-migratory, or with local movements.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, mainly hairy caterpillars.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; hosts are African shrikes (Prionops). Incubation 13 days, nestlings evict host eggs and chicks. Fledges in 28 days.

conservation status

Not globally threatened, uncommon to rare.

significance to humans

None known.


Common hawk-cuckoo

Cuculus varius

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus varius Vahl, 1797, Tranquebar, India. Two subspecies recognized.

other common names

English: Ceylon hawk cuckoo, brain-fever bird; French: Coucou shikra; German: Wechselkuckuck; Spanish: Cuco Chikra.

physical characteristics

13 in (33 cm); 3.6 oz (104 g). Tails are banded, with bars on the abdomen and flanks.

distribution

Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

habitat

Montane forests, deciduous and evergreen wooded areas; also pine forests, gardens, groves, and bamboo thickets.

behavior

Loud, shrieking call, often heard singing at night with a bright moon.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, including caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers, beetles; they also eat fruits and berries. Arboreal and secretive foragers.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; breeding March–July in India, and January–April in Sri Lanka.

conservation status

Not globally threatened, fairly common within most of their distribution area, but rare in Sri Lanka.

significance to humans

None known.


Common cuckoo

Cuculus canorus

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus canorus Linnaeus, 1758, Sweden. Four subspecies recognized.

other common names

French: Coucou gris; German: Kuckuck; Spanish: Cuco Común.

physical characteristics

12.6–13 in (32–33 cm), 0.23 lb (115 g). Males dark gray above, tail blackish brown, spotted and tipped with white, unevenly barred black. Gray to white underparts, eye ring yellow, iris brown to orange, bill black. Females similar, although rufous on upper breast; females of canorus subspecies occur in a rufous (hepatic) morph.

distribution

Europe and Asia, from Iberian Peninsula and North Africa to Siberia, Kamchatka, and Japan. Winters in southern Africa and southern Asia.

habitat

Forests and woodlands, open wooded areas, steppes, meadows, and reedbeds.

behavior

Males sing a loud "cuck-oo" in spring, silent in winter. Migratory in northern part of the distribution range.

feeding ecology and diet

Mainly caterpillars, and other insects such as dragonflies, crickets, beetles. Prey on eggs and nestlings of songbirds.

reproductive biology

Solitary most of the time, both females and males have multiple partners, but no clear social relationships. Brood parasitic; over 120 hosts, eggs are polymorphic, resembling the eggs of the different hosts. Incubation 12 days, nestlings evict host eggs and chicks; nestling period around 18 days. Fledgling fed by foster parents for two or three weeks after leaving the nest.

conservation status

Not globally threatened. Common and vocally conspicuous (but difficult to see) throughout its range.

significance to humans

None known.


Dideric cuckoo

Chrysococcyx caprius

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus caprius Boddaert, 1783, Cape of Good Hope. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Diederik cuckoo, didric cuckoo; French: Coucou didric; German: Goldkuckuck; Spanish: Cuclillo Didric.

physical characteristics

7.5 in (19 cm), 1.1 oz (32 g). Bronze-green above, white below with barred green flanks.

distribution

Sub-Saharan Africa and South Arabia.

habitat

Open woodlands, acacia savanna, and in gardens of towns.

behavior

Species has both sedentary and migratory populations.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, mainly caterpillars; seeds.

reproductive biology

Breeds with rains. Brood parasitic; two-day-old chick evicts host offspring.

conservation status

Not globally threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo

Chalcites basalis

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus basalis Horsfield, 1821, Java. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Australian bronze-cuckoo, narrow-billed bronze-cuckoo, rufous-tailed bronze-cuckoo; French: Coucou de Horsfield; German: Rotschwanzkuckuck; Spanish: Cuclillo de Horsfield.

physical characteristics

6.7 in (17 cm), 0.77 oz (22 g). Brownish bronze above, streaked throat with barred flanks and sides of breast. Black, slender bill.

distribution

Australia and Tasmania; winters north.

habitat

Open woodlands, scrubs.

behavior

Resident and seasonally migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, mainly caterpillars.

reproductive biology

All brood parasitic; chicks evict host offspring.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Banded bay cuckoo

Penthoceryx sonneratii

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus sonneratii Latham, 1790, India. Sometimes placed in the genus Cacomantis. Five subspecies.

other common names

French: Coucou de Sonnerat; German: Sonneratkuckuck; Spanish: Cuco Bayo.

physical characteristics

8.7 in (22 cm), 1.3 oz (37 g). Bright rufous or bay above, barred with brown, white line under eye, tail with black band and white tip, iris yellow to brown, bill black.

distribution

Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar to southwest China, Thailand and Indochina, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Palawan, Java.

habitat

Forests, deciduous and evergreen, secondary scrub.

behavior

Resident in most of its area, although partially migratory in areas.

feeding ecology and diet

Caterpillars and bugs.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; nestlings evict host eggs and chicks.

conservation status

Not threatened, fairly common in much of its range.

significance to humans

None known.


Asian drongo-cuckoo

Surniculus lugubris

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus lugubris Horsfield, 1821, Java. Four subspecies.

other common names

French: Coucou surnicou d'Asie; German: Drongokuckuck; Spanish: Cuclillo-drongo Asiático.

physical characteristics

9.8 in (25 cm), 1.2 oz (35 g). Glossy black, tail square, white bands on undertail coverts and underwing, iris brown, bill black.

distribution

Punjab and lower Himalayas east through Nepal to Assam, from South Central China to Indochina, South India, Sri Lanka, Java, Bali, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, and North Moluccas.

habitat

Open forests and scrubs, bamboo jungle; occasionally gardens and mangroves.

behavior

Resident, seasonally migratory and nomadic. The northern subspecies winters on Malaysia.

feeding ecology and diet

Caterpillars and other soft insects, sometimes figs.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; hosts are mainly babblers; nestlings evict the eggs and chicks of hosts.

conservation status

Not globally threatened. Unevenly distributed within its range.

significance to humans

None known.


Common koel

Eudynamys scolopacea

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus scolopaceus Linnaeus, 1758, Malabar. Seventeen subspecies recognized.

other common names

English: Asian koel, black billed koel, Australian/blue headed koel; French: Coucou koël; German: Indischer koel; Spanish: Koel Común.

physical characteristics

15.4–18.1 in (39–46 cm), 0.43–0.65 lb (215–327 g). Subspecies vary quite a lot, mostly in the plumage of females; males are glossy black, iris red, bill light green.

distribution

Nepal, Pakistan to India, Sri Lanka, South China and Indochina, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Sulawesi, Moluccas, New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, North and East Australia.

habitat

Forests, edge and scrub, plantations, and orchards.

behavior

Different voices similar to a loud "ko-el" and "kow-kow." Resident or makes irregular movements.

feeding ecology and diet

Feeds in tree canopy; fruits such as figs, berries, papayas, and tamarinds consumed. Also a few insects and snails.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; hosts include crows, drongos, orioles, and honeyeaters. May lay more than one egg per nest; chicks do not always evict host offspring, but still decrease their success. Females sometimes feed juveniles.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common throughout much of its range.

significance to humans

None known.


Long-tailed koel

Urodynamis taitensis

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Cuculus taitensis Sparrman, 1787, Tahiti. Currently situated also in the genus Eudynamys. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Coucou de Nouvelle-Zélande; German: Langschwanzkoel; Spanish: Koel Colilargo.

physical characteristics

15–16.5 in (38–42 cm), 0.24 lb (120 g). Male, long-tailed, rufous-barred brown above, head blackish; below, white to rufous, iris yellow, bill yellow-horn, nostril slit-like. Females more rufous.

distribution

New Zealand and many islands in Oceania: Carolines, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Norfolk, Bismarck Archipelago.

habitat

Forest and scrub.

behavior

Sometimes several males call in a social group, similar to a lek. Long-distance migrant, breeding in New Zealand and wintering in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Migrates at night. Immatures remain in the wintering areas until they are two years old.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, crabs, lizards, eggs, nestlings.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; hosts are songbirds. Nestling evicts host offspring; nestling period is around 21 days.

conservation status

Not globally threatened, although some populations are declining because of habitat loss.

significance to humans

None known.


Channel-billed cuckoo

Scythrops novaehollandiae

subfamily

Cuculinae

taxonomy

Scythrops novaehollandiae Latham, 1790, New South Wales. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Coucou présageur; German: Fratzenkuckuck; Spanish: Cuco Tucán.

physical characteristics

23.6 in (60 cm), 1.24 lb (623 g). Gray with black spots above, tail with subterminal black band and white tip, light gray below, huge bill, dark and pale gray. Bare skin around eye red, iris red.

distribution

Sulawesi, Buru, Flores, north and east Australia. Winters in Moluccas, Lesser Sundas, Aru, New Guinea, and Bismarck Archipelago

habitat

Edge of forests or along rivers, mangroves, and lowlands.

behavior

Migratory and seasonal in Australia. The voice is a loud "gaak" rapidly repeated. Males feed females before copulating.

feeding ecology and diet

Fruit and insects.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; crows and other corvids as hosts, also Australian magpies and magpie larks. Unknown if eviction occurs, but host chicks sometimes disappear from the nest.

conservation status

Not globally threatened, uncommon in much of its range.

significance to humans

None known.


Green-billed malkoha

Rhopodytes tristis

subfamily

Phaenicophaeinae

taxonomy

Melias tristis Lesson, 1830, Sumatra; error=Bengal. Six subspecies.

other common names

English: Greater or large green-billed malkoha; French: Malcoha sombre; German: Großer grünschnabelkuckuck; Spanish: Malcoha Sombrío.

physical characteristics

19.7 in (50 cm), 4.0 oz (115 g). Body gray with glossy green above; long tail with broad white tips; bare red skin around eye; pale green bill.

distribution

Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Sumatra, India, Indochina, Kangean Is., South China.

habitat

Forests, bamboo, scrub, plantations.

behavior

Resident.

feeding ecology and diet

Mainly insects, also lizards and frogs.

reproductive biology

Nest is a flat platform of sticks. Eggs: 2–4. Monogamous.

conservation status

Not globally threatened; has adapted to a number of human-modified habitats.

significance to humans

None known.


Blue coua

Coua caerulea

subfamily

Phaenicophaeinae

taxonomy

Cuculus caeruleus Linnaeus, 1776, Madagascar. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Blue Madagascar coucal; French: Coua bleu; German: Blau-Seidenkuckuck; Spanish: Cúa Azul.

physical characteristics

18.9–19.7 in (48–50 cm), 8.2 oz (235 g). Dark blue above and below; bare blue skin around eye; black bill.

distribution

Madagascar.

habitat

Forest and mangroves.

behavior

Resident.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, small reptiles, and fruits.

reproductive biology

Nests are bowls of twigs, on trees or bushes. One egg.

conservation status

Not globally threatened.

significance to humans

Subject to trapping and hunting.


Greater coucal

Centropus sinensis

subfamily

Centropodinae

taxonomy

Polophilus sinensis Stephens, 1815, Ning Po, China. Six subspecies.

other common names

English: Common or large coucal, common crow-pheasant, lark-heeled cuckoo; French: Grand coucal; German: Heck-enkuckuck; Spanish: Cucal Chino.

physical characteristics

18.5–20.5 in (47–52 cm); 8.3–9.4 oz (236–268 g). Black, with chestnut back and wings. Long and broad black tail; black bill.

distribution

Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Indochina, Sumatra, Borneo, Philippines, Java, Bali, Kangean Is.

habitat

Forest, grassland, mangroves, scrub, cultivations, marshes, reedbeds, gardens.

behavior

Resident and locally migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Large insects, small vertebrates, snails, fruits, and seeds.

reproductive biology

Breeds in rains. Nest is large globular ball of twigs and leaves or grass. Eggs 2–4. Monogamous.

conservation status

Common throughout its range. Not globally threatened.

significance to humans

Nestlings are captured for medicinal purposes in Borneo.


Greater ani

Crotophaga major

subfamily

Crotophaginae

taxonomy

Crotophaga major J. F. Gmelin, 1788, Cayenne. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Ani des palètuviers; German: Riesenani, Spanish: Garrapatero Mayor.

physical characteristics

18.1 in (46 cm); male 5.7 oz (162 g), female 5.1 oz (145 g). Glossy blue-black, long tails, bill arched and laterally compressed.

distribution

Central and South America.

habitat

Tropical evergreen forest, pastures, marshes, mangroves.

behavior

Resident with local movements. Group-living, defend territories.

feeding ecology and diet

Mainly insects, also lizards, seeds, fruits, and berries.

reproductive biology

Cooperative breeders, nesting in loose colonies. Socially monogamous. Nests are a bulky platform of sticks. Lay 2–5 eggs.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Yellow-billed cuckoo

Coccyzus americanus

subfamily

Coccyzinae

taxonomy

Cuculus americanus Linnaeus, 1758, South Carolina. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Coulicou à bec jaune; German: Gelbschnabelcuckuck; Spanish: Cuclillo Piquigualdo.

physical characteristics

11.8 in (30 cm); male 2.0 oz (58 g), female 2.4 oz (68 g). All brownish to gray above, and white, rufous, or a combination of gray and rufous below. Tails long, gray with white tips below. Large bill is black above, yellow below.

distribution

North and South America.

habitat

From tropical forest to open woodland and scrub.

behavior

Migratory; migrates at night.

feeding ecology and diet

Large insects, caterpillars, lizards, berries, and fruit.

reproductive biology

Monogamous, nest is a flat platform of sticks. 2–5 eggs.

conservation status

Not globally threatened. Has disappeared in areas of western United States because of loss of riparian woodland habitat.

significance to humans

None known.


Greater roadrunner

Geococcyx californiana

subfamily

Neomorphinae

taxonomy

Saurothera californiana Lesson, 1829, California. Monotypic

other common names

French: Grand géocoucou; German: Wegecuckuck; Spanish: Correcaminos Grande.

physical characteristics

22.1 in (56 cm); male 0.64 lb (320 g), female 0.58 lb (290 g). Slender, long tails and legs; streaked brown above; crested; tail with white tips; bare skin behind eye; black bill.

distribution

Southwest United States and Mexico.

habitat

Arid lowland scrub.

behavior

Resident, pairs in territory all year. They can fly, but usually run on bare ground.

feeding ecology and diet

Opportunistic; insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, birds, rabbits.

reproductive biology

Monogamous; nest in an open platform of sticks. 2–6 eggs. Males incubate at night. Hatching is asynchronous (eggs may hatch up to seven days apart).

conservation status

Not threatened. However, local populations' range is decreasing in urban areas.

significance to humans

None known.


American striped cuckoo

Tapera naevia

subfamily

Neomorphinae

taxonomy

Cuculus naevius Linnaeus, 1766, Cayenne. Two subspecies recognized.

other common names

French: Géocoucou tacheté; German: Streinfenkuckuck; Spanish: Cuclillo Crespín.

physical characteristics

10.2–11.4 in (26–29 cm), 0.10 lb (52 g). Brown above, head with striped black and rufous crest, prominent black alula, white below with black streaks in throat and chest. Bare skin around eye yellow, iris brown to green, bill brown.

distribution

Southern Mexico to Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, North Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina.

habitat

Scrub, grassland, open country with scattered trees and bushes.

behavior

Shy and solitary; song with 3–5 whistled notes, "pee, pee, pee, peedee,"; conspicuous when singing from a post or wire. Resident, except in Argentina, seasonal.

feeding ecology and diet

Forages on vegetation and on the ground; insects, especially grasshoppers and caterpillars.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; hosts with covered nests, such as wrens, flycatchers, and sparrows. Nestlings use their sharp bill to kill host chicks; fledge in 18 days.

conservation status

Not threatened, common to uncommon, expanding in Central America and Brazil.

significance to humans

None known.


Pheasant cuckoo

Dromococcyx phasianellus

subfamily

Neomorphinae

taxonomy

Macropus phasianellus Spix, 1824, Tonantins, northwest Brazil. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Gèocoucou faisan; German: Fasanenkuckuck; Spanish: Cuclillo Faisán.

physical characteristics

5.1 in (13 cm), 0.63 oz (18 g). Dark brown above, short rufous crest, long tail with white tips, white below.

distribution

Central and South America.

habitat

Tropical evergreen forest.

behavior

Secretive and solitary.

feeding ecology and diet

Insects, lizards.

reproductive biology

Brood parasitic; hosts include flycatchers. Host offspring disappear after cuckoo hatches.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Resources

Books

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Ali, S. A., and S. D. Ripley, The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Baker, E. C. S. Cuckoo Problems. London: Witherby, 1942.

Chance, E. P. The Cuckoo's Secret. London: Sedgwick & Jackson, 1922.

Cramp, S., ed. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North America. The Birds of the Western Paleartic. Vol. 4. Terns to Woodpeckers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1997.

Erritzoe, J. Working Bibliography of Cuckoos and Turacos of the World. Vojens, Denmark: P. J. Schmidt Grafisk, 2000.

Fry, C. H., S. Keith, and E. K. Urban, eds. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 3. London: Academic Press, 1988.

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Lack, D. Ecological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds. London: Methuen, 1968.

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Rothstein, S. L., and S. Robinson. Parasitic Birds and their Hosts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.

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Balch, L. G. "Identification of groove billed and Smooth billed Anis." Birding 11 (1979): 295–297.

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Brooke, M. L. and N. B. Davies. "Egg mimicry by cuckoos Cuculus canorus in relation to discrimination by hosts." Nature 335 (1988): 630–632.

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De S. Disney, H. J. "Ageing, sexing and plumage of the Australian koel Eudynamys cyanocephala." Corella 16 (1992): 97–103.

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Martínez, J. G., M. Soler, and J. J. Soler. "The effect of magpie breeding density and synchrony on brood parasitism by great spotted cuckoos." Condor 98 (1996): 272–278.

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Juan Gabriel Martínez, PhD

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