ID Guide: Common Cuckoo

Juvenile Cuculus cuckoo
Juvenile Cuculus cuckoos are very difficult to ID to species. This is especially true in Shanghai, where most Cuculus are passage migrants. If however you are on the breeding grounds and know something about the host species, then you may be able to attempt an ID. In this award-winning photo, taken in July at Wolong-Balangshan (30.960977, 102.878398) in Sichuan, the juvenile cuckoo that the Rosy Pipit is feeding is most likely Common Cuckoo C. canorus. The large size of the cuckoo is a clue, but the strongest indicator may be the foster parent. Common Cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of pipits, while Himalayan Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo favor small warblers and Indian Cuckoo favors drongos and shrikes. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus breeds throughout China except western deserts and Hainan. In Shanghai breeds Cape Nanhui. Three ssp. in China: nominate Altai Mountains in Xinjiang and across eastern China, subtelephonus Xinjiang to central Inner Mongolia, and bakeri on Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan. ID & COMPARISON Of the five similar Cuculus cuckoos in China (Common, Oriental, Himalayan, Indian, and Lesser), Common is largest, but size alone rarely enough for positive identification. Best differentiator is voice, and Common is instantly recognizable, the disyllabic KOO-koo being one of the best-known bird sounds. Usually silent outside breeding season, making identification difficult. All five long-tailed and slender, with adults grey-hooded and having similarly colored grey upperparts. Tail darker than upperparts, approaching black, with some white spotting. Underparts whitish, with black bars (fainter on lower belly and vent). Legs short, yellow; wings long, pointed. All are insectivorous, with caterpillars in particular being taken, and in their rapid flight these cuckoos can be mistaken for a falcon or hawk. All are brood parasites and secretive forest dwellers; note however that whereas Common favors more open habitats and is often conspicuous, OrientalHimalayan almost always prefers deep forest and is rarely in the open. Common most closely resembles Oriental and Himalayan; like them, and unlike Indian and Lesser, Common has a grey rump that contrasts with darker tail. Bars of Common often appear thinner than OrientalHimalayan, and vent usually whiter (often buffish in OrientalHimalayan). Female similar to male, sometimes with rusty tinge to breast sides; in hepatic morph, upperparts are rust-colored and heavily barred; unlike OrientalHimalayan hepatic, Common lacks barred rump. Juvenile distinguished from hepatic female by darker hood and grey-brown upperparts with brown barring on wings and mantle. Juvenile also has white nuchal patch. Juvenile extremely difficult to distinguish from juvenile OrientalHimalayan; one indicator may be species of foster parent. In China, Common Cuckoo parasitizes nests of Acrocephalus warblers, accentors, and pipits. BARE PARTS Bill yellow at base, with black tip; iris and eye-ring yellow, less dark than Indian Cuckoo.


Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus canorus, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, June. Note white vent and thin barring. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus subtelephonus, Tianshan, Xinjiang, China, elev. 2030 m (6,660 ft.), July. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorous bakeri, Qinghai, China, July. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus canorus, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May. Each May and June at Cape Nanhui, the coastal birding hotspot at the extreme southeast of the city-province, Common Cuckoo makes a brief, noisy, and highly conspicuous appearance. Its destination is the remnant reedbeds at the Cape, and its object is to parasitize the nests of Oriental Reed Warbler. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo
Cape Nanhui, May. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo
Cape Nanhui, May. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Cuckoo
Singing Common Cuckoo on sea wall at Cape Nanhui, June. (Craig Brelsford)


Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus canorus, snatch of song and cough, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (00:03; 890 KB)

Common Cuckoo C. c. canorus, song with song of Oriental Reed Warbler in background, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (00:44; 2 MB)


Cuckoos of Shanghai

The Cuckoos of Shanghai: Craig Brelsford examines the Shanghai-area parasitic cuckoos and teaches you how to tell them apart. The non-Cuculus parasitic cuckoo that one is most likely to see in Shanghai is Large Hawk-Cuckoo. Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Asian Koel, and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo also are occasionally noted.

Indian Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo

Indian Cuckoo & Common Cuckoo: A Comparison: Note the smaller size of Indian Cuckoo, its thicker barring, and its darker iris. Voice as always is the surest differentiator. Both Indian Cuckoo and Common Cuckoo occur on passage in Shanghai and breed in the region.


Why This Cuckoo Is Lesser Cuckoo: The Cuculus I saw at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui in September had the dark eye, well-defined and widely spaced barring, and small size suggestive of Lesser Cuckoo. See my photos of the thrush-sized cuckoo.


My Exchange with a Reader About Cuculus Cuckoos: “Draw a circle around the five [Cuculus] cuckoos [of China],” Craig Brelsford instructs a reader. “Within that circle, draw three circles: one around Indian, one around Lesser, and one around Common, Himalayan, and Oriental.” Using this method, one quickly clusters the three main groups of Cuculus in China.


Daniel Bengtsson served as chief ornithological consultant for Craig Brelsford’s Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, from which this species description is drawn.

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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford is the founder of Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. Now back home in Florida, Brelsford maintains close ties to the Shanghai birding community and continues his enthusiastic development of this website. When Brelsford departed China, he was the top-ranked eBirder in that country, having noted more than 930 species. Brelsford was also the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai, with more than 320 species. Brelsford’s photos of birds have won various awards and been published in books and periodicals and on websites all over the world. Brelsford’s Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, published in its entirety on this website, is the most Shanghai-centric field guide ever written. Brelsford is a graduate of the University of Florida and earned a master's in business administration at the University of Liege, Belgium.

2 thoughts on “ID Guide: Common Cuckoo”

  1. This post is impressive on so many levels. First, Common Cuckoo itself — what a powerful animal, what a huge distribution, nearly all temperate Eurasia. Second, the work you’ve done on this post, Craig, is also very impressive. I particularly enjoy what you call your China-centric presentation of Common Cuckoo, with an emphasis on the 5 Chinese Cuculus species that a reader would never find in a Europe-centric presentation of Common Cuckoo. Your photos of the species come from all over China, another noteworthy thing, with strong representation from Shanghai, your home base. You really did it all in your time over in China Craig, and this post shows it! Great job, and Happy holidays!

  2. Craig, I especially enjoy and appreciate your in-depth description of the Cuckoo from an East Asian perspective. The pictures are phenomenal, and I love the sound-recordings, especially the cough. Amazing post, keep it up!

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