- Colour: Males and females are similar in appearance, but differ in eye color (males are red to dark brown and females are pale brown). The face has a pale eyebrow and a dark eye-stripe, with both curving down the sides of the neck, and dark mottling on its otherwise pale throat. The top of the head is olive brown. The back and wings are also olive brown, with a greenish sheen. Its underbody is white to cream, with dark-brown barring on the breast and belly. Its uppertail has a green sheen and is edged with orange-brown, and its undertail is grey with brown-and-white barring at the tip and sides, and is orange-brown when spread.
- Young birds are generally similar in colour but duller, and lack a pale eyebrow and have only faint (or no) barring on its underparts.
- Distinctive feature: a prominent dark-brown eye-stripe, with a contrasting white eyebrow.
- Size: 17 – 18 cm long.
- Call: a descending, high-pitched whistle (“fee-ew” or “tseeeeuw”). May also “chirrup” like a sparrow or a pipit.
- Diet: mainly insects and their larvae, especially hairy caterpillars. It forages on the ground and in trees, and has been seen catching caterpillars in the air as they lower themselves to the ground using sticky threads.
- Movement: a partial migrant (some birds migrate while others do not). In south-eastern Australia, it moves to its breeding areas during winter and spring, before departing in early or late summer. In northern Australia, it is recorded more often in summer than in winter.
- Breeding: Nest parasitism occurs where a single egg is laid in the nest of another bird, especially fairy-wrens, thornbills and White-fronted Chats. The female cuckoo removes one of the host’s eggs, or the young cuckoo (having hatched earlier than the host's eggs) will force the other eggs and nestlings out of the nest. The host parents incubate the cuckoo egg for 12 days, and then feed the young bird in the nest and after it fledges.
What to Observe
- Hosts feeding young
ClimateWatch Science Advisor
Cuckoos are very inconspicuous birds, except when they are calling, and are typically only recorded through their call. Climate change may change their breeding season by changing the breeding season of their hosts. This will most obviously manifest itself in changes in the time of year when they are calling. We would expect calling to begin and finish earlier in the year in southern Australia and perhaps to do the same in northern Australia if changes in rainfall patterns lead to host species breeding earlier in the year. Help scientists answer the question: "How are our animals, plants and ecosystems responding to climate change?”
When To Look
- From July to February in southern Australia and all months except April and July in northern Australia for breeding behaviour.
- During winter and spring for migratory birds that breed in south-eastern Australia.
Note: ClimateWatch is looking for any changes in the timing of these events, so remember to keep a lookout from June in southern Australia and all year round in northern Australia for breeding activity!
Where To Look
- In many wooded habitats (e.g. open or dry woodland and forest) with an understory of grass, shrubs or heath. It also occurs in farmland with some trees, vineyards, and urban parks and gardens, and is sometimes found near clearings and in recently logged or burnt forests.
- Throughout most of Australia, though it is recorded less often in arid areas.
- Look in any lightly wooded habitat, including forests, woodlands, areas of tall shrubby saltmarsh, and occasionally urban parks and gardens.
Note: ClimateWatch is looking for any changes in their known ranges, so remember to keep a lookout beyond these regions!
Higgins PJ (ed) 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Volume 4 (Parrots to Dollarbird). Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Simpson K and Day N 1999. Field guide to the birds of Australia, 6th Edition. Penguin Books, Australia.
Strahan R (ed) 1994. Cuckoos, Nightbirds and Kingfishers of Australia. Angus and Robertson/Australian Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife, Sydney.
- Black-eared Cuckoo (Chalcites osculans): is larger (19 – 21 cm), has a broader black eye-stripe, lacks greenish sheen on its upperparts (and it is greyish rather than olive brown), lacks orange-brown on its tail and lacks barring on its underbody.
- Shining Bronze-Cuckoo (Chalcites lucidus): has a much stronger bronze to green sheen on its upperparts and lacks the patch around its eye and the white eyebrow. The barring on its underparts is more complete with, at most, a few incomplete bars in the centre of its belly. The tail lacks an orange-brown colour.
- Little Bronze-Cuckoo (Chalcites minutillus): is variable in plumage but has an obvious fleshy red eyering and some individuals have a rusty brown wash on the underparts. It also lacks the eye patch and white eyebrow.
- Any other cuckoo: won’t have the combination of green sheen on upperparts, dark eye-stripe, white eyebrow and barring underneath.
Did You Know?
The call recording is by David Stewart Naturesound
Its average weight is 26 grams.
The markings on its egg can sometimes resemble the host's eggs, but not always.
In Western Australia, some populations may have declined because populations of their their host have declined due to land clearance for agriculture.
Cuckoos are very noisy during the breeding season but are mostly silent for the rest of the year.
Listen to the Call