a web page by Don Roberson
Cuckoos, coucals, couas, malkohas, anis, roadrunners, ground-cuckoos & allies
  • 143 species worldwide
  • DR personal total: 100 species (70%), 37 photo'd

The Cuculidae is a diverse family of mid-sized to largish birds found in wooded habitats, savannas, or marshes around the globe. Cuckoos thrive on all continents except Antarctica. Most occur in the tropics and are resident but some are highly migratory, breeding in temperate habitats far to the north or south. The African Cuckoo (above) is an intra-continental migrant in Africa, moving long distances between wet season breeding sites and more tropical non-breeding areas in the dry season. Many cuckoos are secretive and hard to find; vocalizations are often the key indicator of their presence. The Pavonine Cuckoo of tropical South America (left) is a large and impressive cuckoo but shy and elusive. In contrast, parties of Guira Cuckoo (below) are loud and conspicuous in open grasslands and pampas throughout the southern half of South America.

The three cuckoos mentioned represent different subfamilies. The variation among the Cuculidae ranges from parasitic songsters that lay eggs in the nests of other birds (the classic Old World cuckoo) to rangy ground-feeders in the New World to secretive skulkers whose gurgling "water-bottle" calls dominate an African swamp. This diversity supports the feeling among some that these wonderfully strange birds might better be separated into several families.

There are issues about higher relationships within the cuckoos, but there are some generalities as well. Nearly all are insect-eaters; a fair number of species in both the Old & New worlds specialize in devouring hairy caterpillars. All are long-tailed; most have powerful legs and feet. All cuckoos have zygodactyl feet (two toes forward, two backward). The vast majority are birds of woodlands, forests, and jungles; most are arboreal. Many have distinctive vocalizations. It is agreed that all the cuckoos form an Order of birds: the Cuculiformes. Sibley & Monroe (1990) included the unique Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin among this Order, but Hoatzin has anisodactyl feet (three toes forward, one backwards) like most birds. Most recent arrangements do not include the Hoatzin among the Cuculiformes. Prum et al. (2015) found that Hoatzin dated back about 64 million years ago and is sister to the rest of the landbirds, not with the cuckoos at all.

The other major question is how many families to create out of the diversity in the Cuculiformes. Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990) settled on five families but the Handbook of the Birds of the World account (Payne 1997) considers these five groups to be subfamilies, and further separates the malkohas and couas as another subfamily, making six subfamilies in all. Then the malkohas and the couas are given "tribe" status, thus forming at least seven distinctive groups of cuckoos. I recommend that birders learn all seven groups, and that you search for each as you enjoy birding the world. Here are the HBW six subfamilies:

  • Cuculinae: the Old World parasitic cuckoos — 50+ species including genus Cuculus, Clamator, and ten other genera;
  • Phaenicophilinae: the Malkohas and Old World ground-cuckoos (16+ species) and Couas (10 species endemic to Madagascar [Sibley & Monroe 1990 including these with the preceding group];
  • Centropodinae: the Coucals (28 species in genus Centropus);
  • Coccyzinae: the American Cuckoos (18 species in 4 genera);
  • Neomorphinae: the New World ground-cuckoos, Roadrunners and allies (10 species in 5 genera); and
  • Crotophaginae: the Anis (3 species in genus Crotophaga) and Guira Cuckoo (genus Guira)

Prum et al. (2015) matched molecular evidence with fossil evidence to construct a phylogeny of modern birds. Their evidence showed that the Old World subfamily Cuculinae diverged from the New World Coccyzinae group about 22 million years ago (mya) and that the combined clade of Old and New World cuckoos diverged from the Coucals about 32 mya.

Thus the Coucals are the most ancient lineage, and some recent publications treat them as a separate family again (e.g., Beehler & Pratt 2016). There are also plenty of questions at species level taxonomy. "Burchell's" White-browed Coucal (right or above right) is considered just a subspecies or southern color morph of the widespread White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus by a number of African authorities (Fry, Keith & Urban 1988; Payne 1997) but Sibley & Monroe (1990) wrote that "the relationship in the area of overlap is uncertain; both forms occur together and represent an advanced state in the speciation process." They considered them separate species, a position followed by Clements (1991) but reversed in Clements (2000). This topic remains controversial today. There are currently 28 species of coucals in the Old World, and while there are species in Africa and Australasia, the center of diversity appears to be southeast Asia, the Greater Sundas, and the Philippines. Shown below (left) is Black-faced Coucal, a secretive species on Mindanao and nearby Philippine islands. It is dressed in a pale buff with chestnut wings and back and black tail, but the heavy majority of coucals are mostly black. An all-black, long-tailed bird with chestnut back and wings is the most common combination, like that worn by this Madagascar Coucal (below right), drying itself after a soaking rain. About a half-dozen coucals are simply entirely black. Some coucals, like Black-faced, clamber through thickets, but many live in rank vegetation adjacent to swamps.

The Couas are another distinctive group. They are found only on Madagascar where there are nine extant species (another went extinct about 1834). All, like the Coqueral's Coua (above left) have red or blue bare skin around the eye; six of the species (including Coqueral's) are terrestrial. In these respects, they remind me of the ground-cuckoos of the New World. During a November 1992 tour of Madagascar, we saw all nine species and I really got to like couas. The Running Coua Coua cursor of southwestern Madagascar ran across the back-country roads, as do roadrunners out here in the American West. Many species, though, require thick habitats and can be harder to see. This Red-capped Coua (above right) cautiously walked out of the underbrush for a sunbath on a forest path. Just look at the subtle change of iridescent colors on the rump and tail.

A spectacular group of southeast Asian cuckoos are the malkohas and allies. These are mostly big, rangy, long-tailed forest birds which live up in the canopy, but they also include the three species of rare and elusive Oriental ground-cuckoos. Some species have outrageous crests; this (right) is is Red-crested Malkoha of the Philippines. Another Philippine endemic is Scale-feathered Malkoha Phaenicophaeus cumingi, which has scale-like rows of odd feathers down the throat and over the crown. Most of the malkohas have bare skin around the eyes, and so do the three species which have evolved a terrestrial life-style. These latter birds are three ground-cuckoos (genus Carpococcyx) in southeast Asia. Although there are ground-cuckoos in the New World, these Asian ground-cuckoos are not closely related. Two are endemics in Borneo and in Sumatra, recently split into two species (Collar & Long 1995). The mainland bird is the the large and impressive Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo (below, in a shot by Dan Singer as it crossed a road in Thailand).

The widespread Old World subfamily Cuculidae are about 55 species of parasitic cuckoos. There are woodland arboreal birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other species, forcing the duped "hosts" to provide all the parental care. All these birds can be difficult to see in the dense canopy, but all are vocal to some degree or another and many are best identified by voice. The best known is Common Cuckoo (both photos right). It breeds throughout Eurasia and gives the classic "coo-coo" song that has been copied into cuckoo-clocks and our subconscious. It and other Cuculus cuckoo live a parasitic lifestyle. Leaving their young behind to be raised by others, it then migrates long distances to winter in southern Africa or south Asia.

The Common Cuckoo shown at near right is typically gray male from a population in China. To the far right is a 'hepatic' (rufous) morph female in its first autumn. Females of this and other Cuculus species often have gray morphs and hepatic morphs. This particular hepatic morph female represents California's first and only record of this Old World species. Long-distance migration can sometimes spin off vagrants on the 'wrong' side of the Pacific. There are a handful of records of Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo C. optatus in Alaska, but this one was found by friends (Lois Goldfrank, Steve Gerow) at Watsonville, in nearby Santa Cruz Co., and lingered from 28 Sep–2 Oct 2012.

While there is a wide diversity in plumages among the parasitic cuckoos, a goodly number of males are clothed in gray with reddish breasts, while many females are barred. All look "hawk-like" in flight. In the Old World tropics there are several species that sport bronzy reflections an another set that are emerald green. An example of the latter is Klaas's Cuckoo (left). Parasitism has apparently evolved twice independently in Old World cuckoos (Payne 1997). The concept of parasitism is particularly interesting in Africa where there are not only a wide array of parasitic cuckoos, but parasitic honeyguides which evolved from primitive woodpecker stock and parasitic indigobirds which arose from estrilid finch ancestors. Obviously, there are significant evolutionary advantages in living a parasitic life-style.

Almost all parasitic birds in the Old World are host-specific, that is they generally focus on a specific species or set of species, and have evolved major host-parasite interrelationships. In Africa, Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandrius — quite a large cuckoo — focuses mainly on Pied Crow Corvus albus. The cuckoo's range extends north into the Middle East, where the host is mostly the 'Hooded' Crow C. corone, and into Europe, where the host is often Black-billed Magpie Pica pica; Fry, Keith & Urban (1988). The Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius —a mid-sized cuckoo — searches out nests of robins and small thrushes. Klaas's Cuckoo (left), an even smaller bird, is hosted mainly by sparrows and sunbirds.

Levaillant's Cuckoo (below) — quite a large cuckoo of arid woodlands— parasitizes mostly Turdoides babblers, such as Arrow-marked Babbler T. jardineii, but also uses Chestnut-bellied Starling Spreo pulcher as a host. These hosts are resident in the dry country but they breed in the wet season, and that is when Levaillant's Cuckoo arrives. After the wet season it is an intra-continental migrant back to the equatorial primary forests.

Before leaving African species, I did want to mention Yellow-throated Cuckoo (above; both shots of the same male). Unlike the many migratory cuckoos in Africa, this is a resident bird in the canopy of primary forests in west Africa and the Congo Basin. It is rare and little known; it is presumed to be parasitic but as of Payne (1997), its hosts were unknown. I've seen it twice: one in thick jungle in eastern Gabon, where the guides considered it the "bird of the trip," and once in southwestern Ghana (this bird, above). Not only does it have a striking black-and-yellow head/breast coloration, but it has white outer rectrices with black subterminal bars, giving a tail pattern that recalls honeyguides. Its song is a "flute-like whistle of 9-12 notes on same pitch, first the longest, accelerating and fading away. ... Sings all year" (Payne 1997). I was very fortunate to obtain photos of this scarce bird.

In Australasia, Fan-tailed Cuckoo (below left) — a smallish cuckoo — relies primarily on scrubwrens and fairy-wrens as hosts. It is part of a suite of species that includes Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo Cacomantis castaneiventris and Brush Cuckoo C. variolosus (sometimes further split as Rusty-breasted Cuckoo C. sepulcralis) that dominate the aural landscape in forests from the Malay Peninsula and Greater Sundas to New Guinea and tropical Australia. On trips to islands within Malaysia, Indonesia, or Papua New Guinea the birder hears one of these species singing all day long in season — and based on that they appear to be quite common — but only rarely is one glimpsed. The very small Little Bronze-Cuckoo (below right) is one of a set of five small and patterned bronze-cuckoos in Australasia. It is brood-parasite of gerygones; this photo is from Sulawesi, so here that would be Flyeater Gerygone sulphurea.

In the far East are four species of drongo-cuckoo, named for a resemblance to drongos (genus Dicurus). This (right) is Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo. Notice it has a shiny plumage like a drongo. Here it looks to be consuming a hairy caterpillar. It parasitizes a variety of bulbuls, babblers and tit-babblers. No drongo is known to be a host.

This species is a recent split from Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus dicruroides. Both were previously lumped as "Asian Drongo-Cuckoo" in southeast Asia. The Square-tailed, however, is the only one to reach Palawan, the south-easternmost of the Philippine Islands. In the rest of the Philippines the resident is Philippine Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus velutinus. A final drongo-cuckoo inhabits the Moluccas.

New Guinea has specialty cuckoos that are scarce and little known, including Long-billed Cuckoo Rhamphomantis megarhynchus, White-crowned Koel Caliechthrus leucolophus, and Dwarf Koel Microdynamis parva. More widespread in south Asia and Australasia are three species of Eudynamys koels. Then there is the very impressive Long-tailed Koel Eudynamys taitensis of New Zealand. It parasitizes endemic songbirds in New Zealand but then migrates to South Pacific islands for the non-breeding season. It has a huge, long tail which is very impressive in flight. Many species of parasitic cuckoos are highly migratory, but the evolution of this bird's route to remote Polynesian islands is something special. The Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae is a huge bird with a toucan-like bill. In the austral summer it searches out nests of crows, currawongs and Australian Magpies; in the austral winter it moves to the lowland forests of New Guinea, searching for figs. From personal experience, I can say this is just one more spectacular cuckoo!

We now turn to the three subfamilies New World. Perhaps the most distinctive are the roadrunners and American ground-cuckoos (Sibley & Monroe's "Neomorphidae"). These are all fascinating ground birds, typified by Greater Roadrunner (above) of the American West. Roadrunners eat a wide variety of ground creatures, including snakes, lizards, and any bird it can run down. We've seen them stalking exhausted vagrant warblers in Death Valley, California. While characteristic of the deserts, small numbers reside in the brushy foothills of California, and there is even a tiny population in the maritime chaparral on Ft. Ord, next to Monterey.

In the New World tropics there are several other cuckoos that are terrestrial, all of which have powerful legs for life on the ground. They all have blue or red bare skin around their eyes (Greater Roadrunner has both blue and red bare skin around its eyes).The northernmost of these is the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (right in a shot by Marc Fenner) of Central America, a species which is usually very hard to see. Even more elusive are four spectacular South American species in the genus Neomorphus; a sighting of any one of them would be a prime highlight of any visit. Some follow army ant swarms; all are rare and local. Here (below) is Kevin Zimmer's gorgeous photo of the ant-following Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo from Panama.

None of the subfamily Coccyzinae — the American Cuckoos — is believed to be parasitic. North America has two widespread and migratory species: Yellow-billed Cuckoo of both eastern forests and southwestern riparian corridors (above, two lefthand photos, a netted bird from California) and Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus, restricted to the East. I don't usually use netted birds on these pages, but in displaying this vagrant we can see the patterned undertail and the rufous patch in the wing, both aspects that are hard to photograph. In California, the local population of Yellow-billed Cuckoo has seriously declined and it is now one of our rarest breeders (see Gaines & Laymon 1984, Laymon & Halterman 1987). Fortunately, numbers are still decent in Arizona and points east. On a visit to Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas we came upon a migrant pulse of dozens of these cuckoos.

There are four species of lizard-cuckoos in the Caribbean, almost all are single-island endemics and each has a dramatic long and impressive tail, and an equally dramatic long bill. This is Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (above right).

In Central & South America, Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana is common and do seem "squirrel-like" as they move through the canopy. A very small version is Little Cuckoo (left). Several South American cuckoos are migratory, moving to the equator in the southern winter (our summer). One of these is Ash-colored Cuckoo C. cinereus. In July 1975, I discovered this tiny cuckoo on the banks of the Amazon River at Leticia where it proved to be a first record for Colombia (Hilty & Brown 1986). It was one of my best personal finds, even though I didn't know what it was at the time. I showed the bird to others and together we sorted it out using Meyer de Schauensee (1966).

The final subfamily [Crotophaginae] consists of three species of anis (genus Crotophaga) — all of them all-black birds like the Smooth-billed Ani (right) — and one species in the genus Guira, the Guira Cuckoo (below) which is sort-of like a blonde ani. All these birds forage on the ground or in small bushes in small flocks. They are communal birds that often roost together, and are co-operative breeders.

Smooth-billed and Groove-billed C. sulcirostris anis are very widespread species in the neotropics, and both reach north into the United States in south Florida and south Texas, respectively. Smooth-bills, though, have become quite scarce and hard to find in Florida; Groove-bills are interesting because vagrants can turn up widely throughout the U.S. (I have chased three in California and finally got the third one). A recent survey on their U.S. status, plus good identification points, is in Mlodinow & Karlson (1999).

The other ani — the yellow-eyed Greater Ani C. major — and Guira Cuckoo are only in South America, favoring, respectively, marshy edges and dry brushy country.


Photos: The flying African Cuckoo Cuculus gularus at Kalkapa, Ghana, on 29 Nov 2013. The Pavonine Cuckoo Dromococcyx pavoninus was at Intervales NP, Brazil, on 31 July 2010. The party of Guira Cuckoo Guira guira (at the top) and the lone bird (bottom of page) were both taken at Porte Jofre, Pantanal, Brazil, on 21 July 2010. The White-browed (Burchell's) Coucal Centropus [superciliosus] burchellii was taken from a blind in Kruger Nat'l Park, South Africa, in July 1996. The Black-faced Coucal Centropus melanops was at Rajah Sikatuna Park, Bohol, Philippines on 20 Dec 2005. The drying Madagascar Coucal Centropus toulou was at Berenty, Madagascar, on Nov 1992. The Coqueral's Coua Coua coquereli was peering out from the undergrowth at Ankarafantsika, Madagascar, on 29 Nov 1992; the Red-capped Coua Coua ruficeps was also there that same day. Blake Matheson photographed the Red-crested Malkoha Phaenicphaeus superciliosus at Mt. Makiling, Luzon, Philippines, on 10 Dec 2005. Dan Singer shot the Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo Carpococcyx renauldi at Khao Yai NP, Thailand, in Feb 2012.
      The two shots of Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus were taken, respectively, at Huzu, China, on 23 June 2004, and Watsonville, California, on 28 Sep 2012. The male Klaas's Cuckoo Cuculus klaas was in the Atewa Range, Ghana, on 17 Dec 2013. The Levaillant's Cuckoo Clamator levaillantii was at Kalkapa Reserve, Ghana, on 29 Nov 2013. Both shots of Yellow-throated Cuckoo Chrysococcyx flavigularis were of a single male at Antwikwaa, Ghana, on 3 Dec 2013. The Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris was in Puerto Princesa NP, Palawan, Philippines, on 23 Dec 2005. The Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis was in the hills above the Baliem Valley, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, in Aug 1994. The Little Bronze-Cuckoo Chrysococcyx minutillus was at the Olobogu River grasslands, Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 1 Oct 2011.
      The Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus was in Shirttail Canyon, Monterey County, California, on 19 Oct 2014. Marc Fenner photographed the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo Morococcyx erythropygus above Lagartos, Costa Rica, on the road to Monteverde, in April 1990. Kevin J. Zimmer photographed the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo Neomorphus geoffroyi at El Valle, Panama, on 29 Mar 2010. Sarah Hamilton took the photos of Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus that was netted and banded at the Big Sur Ornithology Lab, Monterey Co., California, on 4 June 2003. The Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo Saurothera vieilloti was in the eastern mountains of Puerto Rico in March 2000. The Little Cuckoo Coccycua minuta was along the Rio Cuiba, Pantanal, Brazil, on 22 July 2010. The Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani was amongst a small party at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, on 21 Dec 2006.

      Uncredited photos © Don Roberson. Credited photos © Blake Matheson, Dan Singer, Marc Fenner, Kevin Zimmer, and Sarah Hamilton of Big Sur Ornithology Lab, as credited, and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Family book:

Payne, Robert B. 2005. The Cuckoos. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

This thick tome (660 pp) in Oxford's Bird Families of the World series is written by the authority on the Cuculidae. Despite this fact, I admit to not buying it because (a) the cost [offered initially at about $100, now out of print and offered at $160 plus], and (b) the fact that R.B. Payne also authored the Handbook of Birds of the World account (Payne 1997). I have, nonetheless, sneaked a peak when located in a store or a friend's shelf. This new text contains a new phylogeny of the entire family based on molecular research, and I have often wished I owned this book to have ready access to those pages. Payne's text covers the entire family — both the parasitic species and the non-parasitic cuckoos — but surely his emphasis and expertise is on the parasitic lifestyle. [Dr. Payne is also an expert on the parasitic Indigobirds and their Estrildid finch hosts.] To the extent I looked, I don't see detailed identification material aimed at field birders, so that is a smallish weakness. And although there are color illustrations, they are not in situ portraits in habitat, so they are useful rather than gorgeous. But this is the authoritative text on this family.

Literature cited:

Beehler, B.M., and T.K. Pratt. 2016. Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Collar, N. J., and A. J. Long. 1995. Taxonomy and names of Carpococcyx cuckoos from the Greater Sundas. Forktail 11: 135-150.

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

Gaines, D., and S. A. Laymon. 1984. Decline, status and preservation of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo in California. W. Birds 15: 49-80.

Hilty, S. L., and W. L. Brown. 1986. A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Laymon, S. A., and M. D. Halterman. 1987. Can the western subspecies of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo be saved from extinction. W. Birds 18: 19-26.

Meyer de Schauensee, R. 1966. The Species of Birds of South America and their Distribution. Livingston Publ., Narbeth, PA.

Mlodinow, S. G., and K. T. Karlson. 1999. Anis in the United States and Canada. N. Am. Birds 53: 237-245.

Payne, R. B. 1997. Family Cuculidae (Cuckoos), pp. 508–607 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, & J. Sargatal, eds.). Vol. 4. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Prum, R.O., J.S. Bery, A. Dornburg, D.J. Field, J.P. Townsend, E.M. Lemmon, and A.R. Lemmon. 2015. A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature 526: 569–573.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT..




  page created 27 May-16 June 2000, significantly updated 3-28 Apr 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved