CUCKOOS & ALLIES Cuculidae
There is hardly a more diverse family of birds in the world than the Cuculidae. The variety ranges from parasitic songsters that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds (the classic Old World cuckoo) to large & rangy ground-feeders like the Guira Cuckoo of southern South America (left) to secretive beasts whose gurgling "waterbottle" calls can dominate an African landscape, such as the Burchell's Coucal (below or right). The biodiversity in this group may support the growing feeling among ornithologists that the wonderfully strange birds which comprise the current "family" should more properly separated into four to six different families. The relationship of the groups of these birds to each other is still very uncertain. For now we'll consider them all one big happy family with seven distinctive subgroups.

There are numerous questions about higher relationships within the cuckoos, and also plenty of questions at species level taxonomy. The Burchell's Coucal (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). Many mysteries still abound about cuckoos.

There are some generalities about the current cuckoo & allies grouping. 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 & 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), on the basis of molecular evidence, included the Hoatzin among this Order, but hoatzins have anisodactyl feet (three toes forward, one backwards) like most birds, rather than the zygodactyl feet of all the other cuckoos. Most recent arrangements do not include the Hoatzin among the Cuculiformes. The Hoatzin aside (which has a separate page on this web site), the only question is how many families to create out of the diversity in the Cuculiformes. Sibley & Monroe (1990), followed by Clements (1991), settled on five families: the Old World cuckoos (Cuculidae) in which they included the malkohas and couas; the coucals (Centropodidae); the American cuckoos (Coccyzidae); the roadrunners and ground-cuckoos (Neomorphidae); and the anis and Guira Cuckoo (Crotophagidae). But the Handbook of the Birds of the World account (Payne 1997) considers these five groups to be subfamilies, and further separates the malkohas & couas as another subfamily, making six subfamilies in all. Then the malkohas and the couas are given "tribe" status, thus forming our seven distinctive groups of cuckoos. I strongly recommend that birders learn all seven groups, and that you search for each as you enjoy birding the world.


One this web page, we'll start with the three New World groups. Perhaps the most distinctive are the roadrunners and American ground-cuckoos (Sibley & Monroe's "Neomorphidae"). These are all fascinating ground birds, typified by the Greater Roadrunner (left) of the American West. This adult is bringing a large grasshopper to its nest, but 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 (the Greater Roadrunner has both blue and red bare skin around its eyes).

The northernmost of these is the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (right in a great shot by Marc Fenner) of Central America, a species which is usually very hard to see (although can sometimes be lured into view by tapes). Even more elusive are four spectacular South American species in the genus Neormorphus; 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.


The second grouping (subfamily in this arrangement) of New World cuckoos are the anis & allies (Sibley & Monroe's "Crotophagidae"). In this group there are three species of anis (genus Crotophaga), all of them all-black birds like the Smooth-billed Ani (below), and one species in the genus Guira, the Guira Cuckoo (top photo on this page) 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. 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 (Rita & I searched for two days recently without success); 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 the Guira Cuckoo are only in South America, favoring, respectively, marshy edges and dry brushy country.

The final New World grouping is the New World cuckoos, some 18 species well-distributed throughout the Americas. They include Yellow-billed Cuckoo (below left) in North America, the Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (below center) endemic to Puerto Rico (other lizard-cuckoos occur on other Caribbean islands; all are very impressive birds!); and the widespread Squirrel Cuckoo (below right) of the Neotropics from Mexico to Brazil.

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 high in Arizona and points east; on a recent visit to Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (Apr 2000) Rita & I came upon a migrant pulse of dozens of these cuckoos (and I took the photo above left). There are a variety of close relatives elsewhere in the Neotropics; a recent summary of Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor appears in Hughes (1999). There are four species of lizard-cuckoos in the Caribbean, almost all are single-island endemics and each has a dramatic long & impressive tail, and an equally dramatic long bill. In Central & South America, Squirrel Cuckoos are common and do seem "squirrel-like" as they move through the canopy. Several South American cuckoos are migratory, moving to the equator in the southern winter (our summer). On of these is the 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. This first country record is one of my best personal finds, and although cited by Hilty & Brown (1986), they erroneously attribute it to the folks to whom I showed the bird. Still, a cool thing....

Again, these are shots of Yellow-billed Cuckoo (below left), the Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (below center), and the Squirrel Cuckoo (below right).
 

The Old World has four distinct sets of cuckoos. The most widespread are the Old World parasitic cuckoos (Sibley & Monroe's "Cuculidae"), some 53 species of woodland arboreal birds which 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 Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus which breeds throughout Eurasia gives the classic "cuck-oo" song that has been copied into cuckoo-clocks and our subconscious. 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 are emerald green, and another set that sport bronzy reflections. 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 thus have evolved major host-parasite interrelationships. In Africa, for example, the Great Spotted Cuckoo (below left in a photo by Ed Harper) -- quite a large cuckoo -- focusses mainly on the Pied Crow Corvus albus. Its 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 the Black-billed Magpie Pica pica; these details from Fry, Keith & Urban 1988). In contrast, the Red-chested Cuckoo (below center in another Ed Harper photo) -- a mid-sized cuckoo -- searches out nests of robins and small thrushes. In Australasia, the Fan-tailed Cuckoo (below right) -- a slightly smaller cuckoo -- relies primarily on scrubwrens and fairy-wrens (this shot is from the mountains of western New Guinea; look at the mossy cloud-forest branch).

Two species of Old World parasitic cuckoos for which I don't have photos are just great. The Long-tailed Koel Eudynamys taitensis 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 & 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 one impressive bird!

The next set of Old World cuckoos are the 28 species of coucal, all in the genus Centropus (Sibley & Monroe's "Centropodidae"). Almost all are some combination of black and rusty; the Madagascar Coucal (right), drying itself after an afternoon rain-shower, is rather typical in that respect. It is, however, restricted to Madagascar. Others (like the Burchell's Coucal at the top of the page) have black head and red backs, but are white below. Coucals mostly clamber around in thick brush, and are best located by their mechanical-sounding calls.

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 Coquerel's Coua (left) have red or blue bare skin around the eye; six of the species (including Coquerel'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. The Red-capped Coua (below, both photos) cautiously walks out of the underbrush for sunbathing on a forest path. Just look at the subtle change of iridescent colors on the rump and tail....

The final group in our Cuculidae are the malkohas & allies of southeast Asia. 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 Asian ground-cuckoos.
Several species are just big gray yellow-billed birds, but some of those in Sumatra or the Philippines are truly striking and colorful. I really don't have a decent photo of any of the twelve true malkohas (genus Phaenicophaeus) but this poor shot of a sunning female Raffle's Malkoha (right) in Sumatra gives a hint of contrasting patterns of pale gray, red, black and white. Some species have outrageous crests; one in the Philippines 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. One species, the large and very impressive-appearing Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo C. renauldi, lives on the Asian mainland in Thailand and Indochina. The others are endemics to Borneo and to Sumatra, just recently split into two species (Collar & Long 1995). Both of these birds are almost unknown. In writing of the Sumatran bird, Collar & Long (1995) note that "Carpococcyx viridis itself has not to our knowledge been recorded since 1916, and must now be one of the longest missing elements of the Sumatran and indeed Oriental avifauna. Given the highly unobtrusive nature of its Bornean congener, it seems unlikely that the species's situation is as bad as this statistic might indicate ... [but] it is time this bird was rediscovered and learnt about." So yet another great cuckoo, about which there is so much more to know.
 

Photos: The Guira Cuckoo Guira guira was photographed in the Brazilian Pantanal in Aug 1999. The head-detail of Burchell's Coucal Centropus burchelli was taken from a blind in Kruger Nat'l Park, South Africa, in July 1996. The maternal Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus was in Morongo Valley, California, in May 1983. Marc Fenner photographed the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo Morococcyx erythropygus above Lagartos, Costa Rica, on the road to Monteverde, in April 1990. The Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani was amongst a small party on the island of Grenada in March 2000. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus was on the Dry Tortugas, Florida, in April 2000. The Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo Saurothera vieilloti was in the eastern mountains of Puerto Rico in March 2000. The Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana was in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, in Feb 1987. W. Ed Harper photographed the Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius in Kenya in August 1994, and the Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius was at Lake Elmentai, Kenya, in July 1998. the Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis was in the hills above the Beliem Valley, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, in Aug 1994. The Madagascar Coucal Centropus toulou was at during its plumage at Berenty, Madagascar, in Nov 1992. The Coquerel's Coua Coua coquereli was peering out from the undergrowth at Ankarafantskia, Madagascar, on 29 Nov 1992, and the Red-capped Coua Coua ruficeps (two shots) was also at Ankarafantasika, that same day. The sunning female Raffle's Malkoha Phaenicophaeus chlorophaeus was taken at Ketambe Reserve, western Sumatra, Indonesia, in August 1988. All photos © 2000 Don Roberson except the ones attributed to Marc Fenner and to W. Ed Harper who hold those copyrights (used with permission); all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note

There is no "family book" per se, but an outstanding introduction to this family, with lots of spectacular photos, is in Payne (1997).

Other literature cited:

Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check-List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.

Clements, J. F. 2000. Birds of the World: A Check-List. 5th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.

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.

Hughes, J. M. 1999. A closer look: Mangrove Cuckoo. Birding 31: 22-27.

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.

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

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

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.

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