Cuckoos, Anis, and Roadrunners: Cuculiformes

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The Cuculidae family is also called the cuckoo family. It is a large family, with more than 128 species. Species in this family include common cuckoos, anis, and roadrunners. Birds range in length from the 5.1-inch (13-centimeter) pheasant cuckoo to the greater roadrunner, which is 22.1 inches (56 centimeters) long. Anis (ah-NEEZ) are also known as black cuckoos because of their dark plumage. The birds' heavy bill is either smooth or ridged. The greater ani is about 18.1 inches (46 centimeters) long.

Most Cuculidae are not colorful; their feathers are gray, black, or brown. They are slender and have narrow bills, long tails, and zygodactyl (zye-guh-DACK-tuhl) feet. Two toes on each foot face forward, and two face backward. Members of this family are terrestrial, meaning that some species live on land. However, they are able to fly.


Cuckoos are located on every continent except Antarctica. The great spotted cuckoo is found in countries including France, Iraq, and Egypt. The common cuckoo spends summers in Europe and Asia, then winters in Africa. The greater anis range in Central and South America. Greater roadrunners live in the United States and Mexico.


Members of this large family live in a variety of habitats. Some cuckoos range in rainforests, where heavy rainfall produces an abundance of trees. Greater anis live in tropical coniferous forests, where trees don't shed leaves. They also range in grasslands where there are few trees. Roadrunners live in the desert.


Cuculidae eat insects like caterpillars and grasshoppers. Some species eat lizards, seeds, fruit, berries, and bird eggs.


Most cuckoos are solitary, staying alone until they pair up to breed. Many species are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), mating with the same bird for life. About fifty cuckoo species are brood parasites. The female lays eggs in the nests of other birds. She leaves one egg in the nest, expecting the other bird to care for her hatchling. Some cuckoos leave their eggs in a particular species' nest, but other cuckoos may use many hosts, birds that care for the cuckoo's eggs and young.

Anis live in groups and build nests after breeding. They are helped by cooperative breeders. Helpers, usually older offspring, help the parents care for the hatched birds. Roadrunners also nest and care for their young.


People who have never seen a cuckoo may recognize its call. They've heard an imitation of it when a cuckoo clock chimes the hours. Some people think that the actual cuckoo's call means that rain is on the way. In some places, cuckoos are called rainbirds.


Unlike the Warner Brothers bird in the cartoon, the roadrunner doesn't say, "Beep, beep." The roadrunner coos, travels at a speed of 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour) through the desert, and is wily about protecting its nest. The roadrunner will pretend to have a broken wing to lure predators, animals that hunt it for food, away from its nest.


Most species aren't at risk of becoming extinct, dying out. However, populations may decline if the amount of rainforest is reduced.


Physical characteristics: Both males and females have dark gray feathers on the top of their bodies. On the lower body are gray and white feathers. Females of some species have brownish red feathers on their upper breasts. The cuckoo's long tail is black.

Cuckoos have black bills and weigh about 3.7 ounces (115 grams). Their head-to-tail length is 12.6 to 13 inches (32 to 33 centimeters).

Geographic range: Common cuckoos are found throughout Europe and Asia. They also live in Siberia and parts of Africa.

Habitat: Common cuckoos live in various habitats. They're found in wooded areas, including rainforests where heavy rain produces many trees. They also live in meadows and grassland areas like steppes, where there are few trees.

Diet: Common cuckoos are insectivores, primarily eating insects. Their diet includes hairy caterpillars, dragonflies, beetles, and crickets.

Behavior and reproduction: Common cuckoos are solitary and polygamous (puh-LIH-guh-mus). Both males and females breed with many different partners. There is no nest where the female lays eggs. Instead she relies on birds of other species to incubate the eggs and feed the young birds. After mating, the cuckoo looks to see which birds are building nests. The cuckoo may destroy one or more eggs in the "host" bird's nest. The cuckoo does this to make room for her egg. The host is usually fooled because the cuckoo chooses a bird that lays an egg similar to her own. While each cuckoo lays only one type of egg, cuckoos lay eggs of so many sizes and colors that their eggs resemble those of over 125 different host species.

Common cuckoos and people: The common cuckoo has long fascinated people because the female's behavior is so different from that of a traditional mother who cares for her young. A form of the bird's name is used to describe the victim of a dishonest act. Initially, a "cuckold" was man whose wife cheated on him—a "cuckold" is now someone who was deceived. In addition, "cuckoo" is a term used to describe someone who acts strangely.

Not all references to cuckoos, however, are negative. The birds' call is imitated in the chimes of the cuckoo clock. And in England, people say that when they hear a cuckoo in nature that the season of spring will soon arrive.

Conservation status: Common cuckoos do not face extinction; their species is not in danger of dying out. ∎


Physical characteristics: Greater roadrunners are ground cuckoos, terrestrial birds that live primarily on the ground. They rarely fly, traveling on their sturdy legs instead of using their wings. Birds can fly for a short distance and will do so when in danger or traveling downhill.

The roadrunner's head-to-toe length is 22.1 inches (56 centimeters) long. The white-tipped tail accounts for about half of that length. Male roadrunners weigh 0.64 pounds (320 grams). Females weigh about 0.58 pounds (290 grams). Their plumage is black, white, and brown.

Geographic range: Greater roadrunners live in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Habitat: Greater roadrunners live in the dry brush and scrub in the Mojave (moe-HAH-vay) and Sonoran deserts in the United States.

Diet: The greater roadrunner is an omnivore, which means one that eats both meat and vegetation. The bird is fast enough to catch lizards, snakes, spiders, insects, birds, and rabbits.

The roadrunner is among the few animals that hunt rattlesnakes. The bird moves so quickly that it can grab the snake by the tail. The roadrunner holds the rattler in its mouth and shakes it, hitting the snake's head on the ground until it dies. The roadrunner then swallows its prey.

The roadrunner's diet changes in winter when there are fewer animals in the desert. The bird will then eat plants.

Behavior and reproduction: Roadrunners are monogamous and mate for life. They live in pairs and breed in the spring. The male and female gather sticks and twigs for the birds' nest. The female builds a flat nest in a cactus, tree, or shrub. She then lays from two to twelve eggs. Laying eggs may take up to three days.

Both parents incubate the eggs; the male usually sits on them at night. The incubation period lasts from eighteen to twenty-one days. Eggs don't hatch at one time, and a week may pass between hatchings. Rain and food supply influences breeding patterns. Birds in California's Mojave and Sonoran Deserts breed only in the spring. Summer rains in the Arizona portion of the Sonoran increases the food supply, and birds breed in August and September.

Greater roadrunners and people: Greater roadrunners face the risk of being struck by vehicles as they run along desert roads.

Conservation status: Roadrunner populations are not in danger of extinction. However, some populations' numbers are dropping as areas develop. ∎



Stuart, Chris and Tilde. Birds of Africa, from Seabirds to Seed Eaters. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.

Wade, Nicholas, ed. The New York Times Book of Birds. New York: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Web sites:

The Bird Site, Los Angeles Natural History Museum. (accessed April 25, 2004).

"Avian Orders: Cuculiformes." BIRDNET. (accessed May 8, 2004).