Bird O'clock

Unveiling the Fascinating World of the African Cuckoo: From Parasitic Breeding to Acrobatic Flight

When we think of cuckoos, most of us probably imagine them as being elusive and hard to spot. However, African Cuckoos are quite the opposite and are often seen perched on branches or flying overhead.

In this article, we will explore the identification, plumages, and molts of this fascinating species.


Field Identification

African cuckoos are medium-sized birds that measure about 32cm in length. They have a distinctive coloration of their plumage, which is bluish-grey on the upperparts and white on the underparts.

The tail is marked with black stripes, while the wings are spotted with white. The bird’s bill is black and slightly curved downwards, and the eyes are yellow.

Similar Species

African cuckoos share some similarities in appearance with other cuckoo species. They can be easily confused with the Klaas’s Cuckoo, which is smaller in size but has a similar coloration.

However, the Klaas’s Cuckoo has a rust-colored cap on the head, which distinguishes it from the African Cuckoo. The African Emerald Cuckoo also shares a similar greenish-blue coloration, but it has a reddish eye-ring and a black bill.


African cuckoos have two distinct plumages, which are the juvenile and adult plumages. Juvenile birds have a greyish-brown back with a white belly.

They also have blackish streaks on the head and breast. The eyes are brown, and the lower mandible is pale.

Adult African cuckoos have the distinctive blue-grey plumage described above. It has a white underbelly with black stripes in the tail.

Males have a slightly darker blue-grey tint compared to females.


African cuckoos have one complete molt cycle each year, which occurs in the non-breeding season. This is usually from February to June, and the new feathers are fully grown by the start of the breeding season.

During the molt cycle, the old feathers fall out and new ones grow in their place. This is a critical time for the bird, as they lose their flight feathers, which can make it more vulnerable to predators.


In conclusion, African cuckoos are fascinating birds with a distinctive coloration that makes them easy to identify. Their plumage changes during their life cycle, with the juvenile birds having a different coloration compared to the adult birds.

The molt cycle in African cuckoos is essential to maintain healthy feathers, which are crucial for their flight and survival. With this article, we hope that you have learned a great deal about this beautiful bird species.

Systematics History

The African cuckoo, also known as Cuculus gularis, is a species that belongs to the Cuculidae family, which includes other cuckoo species such as the common cuckoo, Indian cuckoo, and Channel-billed cuckoo. The African cuckoo has undergone significant taxonomic revisions throughout history.

Initially classified as the New Holland cuckoo, it was later re-classified as Cuculus gularis by Vieillot in 1817.

Geographic Variation

The African cuckoo is widely distributed across Africa, with a range that extends from Senegal to Ethiopia and south to South Africa. Due to this broad distribution, there are several geographic variations in their appearance.


Subspecies of the African cuckoo are divided based on their geographical location and subtle differences in plumage. There are currently six recognized subspecies of the African cuckoo, which are:


Cuculus gularis gularis: Found in the savannah regions of West Africa, this subspecies is the nominal form of the African cuckoo. It has bluish-grey upperparts and white underparts, with black stripes on its tail feathers.

2. Cuculus gularis lobbanii: Found in coastal Somalia, this subspecies has a more bluish tinge to its grey upperparts and is slightly smaller in size.

3. Cuculus gularis squamatus: This subspecies is found in the eastern region of Africa and has a darker plumage compared to other subspecies.

4. Cuculus gularis saturatus: Found in southern regions of Africa such as Zimbabwe and Botswana, this subspecies has a distinctly darker coloration with a less bluish tint to its grey color.

5. Cuculus gularis ussheri: This subspecies can be found in the eastern regions of Nigeria and Cameroon.

It has a reddish-brown coloration around the head and neck compared to other subspecies. 6.

Cuculus gularis intermedius: Known as the intergrade form, this subspecies is found in areas where the ranges of the other subspecies overlap. It has intermediate characteristics of both subspecies.

Related Species

The African cuckoo has several closely related species, including the Madagascan Cuckoo and the Lesser Cuckoo. The Madagascan Cuckoo has a similar facial pattern as the African cuckoo but differs in its coloration, with a reddish-brown breast and a pale belly.

The Lesser Cuckoo, on the other hand, is smaller in size than the African cuckoo and has a rust-colored cap on its head.

Historical Changes in Distribution

The African cuckoo has undergone changes in its range throughout history. During the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago, the species had a restricted range, which is believed to have expanded as temperatures increased.

The species is believed to have colonized parts of sub-Saharan Africa around 5,000 years ago. However, more recently, the species’ range has been negatively impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by human activities.

This has resulted in a decline of populations in some areas, such as South Africa. The species’ vulnerability to climate change is also of concern, with some models suggesting that its range may shrink in the coming years.


The African cuckoo is a fascinating species that has undergone many taxonomic revisions throughout history. Its range has also undergone significant changes, with fluctuations in response to climate and habitat changes.

The species has several subspecies that are distinguished based on subtle differences in plumage and geographic location. Continuing efforts to monitor and conserve the African cuckoo are critical to ensuring the species’ survival in the face of ongoing threats.


The African cuckoo is found in a variety of habitats across its wide range, including savannahs, woodland, and forest habitats. These birds are often spotted perched on thin branches in open forests, as well as in wooded areas near streams and rivers.

African cuckoos are not particularly picky regarding their habitat requirements. However, the availability of food resources is a crucial factor in their distribution.

The species tends to favor areas with abundant insects and caterpillars, which is why they are frequently observed in forest clearings or other sites with a more open understory where insects are abundant.

Movements and Migration

African cuckoos are migratory birds, and their movements are largely determined by the availability of food. They breed in the southern hemisphere from September to March and migrate to their wintering grounds in central Africa from April to August.

During their migration, African cuckoos fly from their breeding sites in southern Africa to their wintering grounds in central Africa, a distance of over 2,500km. These birds are known for their remarkable navigational abilities, which are key to their successful migration.

The African cuckoo relies on celestial cues, earth’s magnetic field, and visual landmarks to navigate, and can even compensate for shifts in the earth’s magnetic field. The migration pattern of the African cuckoo is also unique, as they can skip migration seasons to avoid harsh weather.

In some years, they do not migrate at all, while in other years, they may migrate short distances.

Breeding and Nesting

The African cuckoo is a brood parasite, meaning it lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species rather than building its own nest. This behavior is thought to be an evolutionary strategy that reduces the costs and risks associated with incubating eggs and rearing young.

Unlike some cuckoo species that target a single host species for their brood parasitism, the African cuckoo is known to parasitize the nests of a range of bird species. In South Africa, it is known to parasitize the nesting sites of several different species of weavers, waxbills and finches.

The African cuckoo typically lays one egg per clutch, with some birds laying as many as three eggs in a season. The eggs of the African cuckoo are usually smaller in size than those of their host species and have a distinctive bluish tint.

Host species of the African cuckoo have evolved various strategies to combat the impact of this parasitism. Some have adapted to recognize and reject cuckoo eggs, while others may desert their nests after detecting cuckoo chicks.

However, the African cuckoo parasitism is still relatively widespread in its range, meaning that the species is successful in this aspect of its life cycle.


The African cuckoo is an interesting and unique bird species that is well adapted to its varied habitats. They migrate long distances to breeding and wintering grounds and have remarkable navigational abilities.

Their breeding cycle is also fascinating, with the species being a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species. The African cuckoo’s parasitic behavior is impressive, and host species have adapted unique strategies to combat its impact.

Diet and Foraging


The African cuckoo is primarily an insectivore, and its diet is loaded with insects, particularly caterpillars and their larvae. They are also known to eat grasshoppers, cicadas, and beetles.

The African cuckoo is a skilled flier and can catch insects on the wing while flying. However, it is often seen perched on branches, where it scans the surroundings for potential prey.

They then swoop down to catch the insects in the air or from the ground. The African cuckoo is known for its opportunistic foraging behavior, meaning it will take advantage of any available food source.


During the breeding season, the African cuckoo favors large caterpillars that are rich in protein. During the non-breeding season, it takes advantage of other food sources such as fruits, nectar, and seeds.

In some cases, they may even resort to kleptoparasitism, which involves stealing food from other birds.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The African cuckoo like other birds is warm-blooded and therefore maintains a stable body temperature irrespective of the external environment. To achieve this, it regulates its metabolic rate by increasing heat production in cold environments and reducing heat production in hotter environments.

This is achieved through the low metabolic rate when compared to mammals.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The African cuckoo is commonly known for its koo-koo-koo vocalisation from which its general name is derived. The species produces a variety of calls such as quacks, bubbling whistles, and chuckles.

The calls produced by the African cuckoo are often heard during the breeding season and are used to communicate with other birds, attract a mate, or defend a territory. In addition to vocalizations, the African cuckoo is also known for its non-vocal sounds, including wing beats and bill snaps.

These are used to communicate with other cuckoos and to establish dominance. The African cuckoo is known for its loud and distinctive vocalizations, which is often heard throughout the day and characteristic of the species.


In conclusion, the African cuckoo has a varied diet that comprises primarily of insects such as caterpillars and their larvae. They are opportunistic feeders and take advantage of any available food source.

The species has a unique regulation of its metabolic rate that enables it to maintain a stable body temperature irrespective of the external environment. The African cuckoo is known for its vocal capacity and the variety of calls it produces, which are used to communicate with other birds, attract mates and defend territories.

The characteristic kuk-kuk-kuk call produced by the African cuckoo is particularly striking and adds to the species’ enchanting appeal.



The African cuckoo is a skilled flier, and its primary mode of locomotion is through the air. The species is known for its rapid and acrobatic flight, which includes sudden twists and turns.

When not in flight, the African cuckoo is perched on thin branches. They use their claws to grasp onto the branch, and their tails provide additional support for balance.

Self Maintenance

Like other bird species, the African cuckoo spends a significant amount of time preening and maintaining its feathers. This is essential to ensure that the feathers remain in good condition for efficient flight and thermoregulation.

The species also bathes regularly to keep its feathers clean and healthy. It often does this in shallow water bodies such as streams and puddles.

Agonistic Behavior

The African cuckoo is known to exhibit agonistic behavior, which involves aggressive behavior towards other individuals of the same species. Such behavior is usually observed during times of competition for limited resources such as territory or mates.

During agonistic behavior, African cuckoos will often puff up their feathers, lower their heads, and make vocalizations to intimidate their opponent. Agonistic behavior is often observed in male birds during the breeding season.

Sexual Behavior


The African cuckoo breeds seasonally, with the breeding period varying depending on the region. They build no nest to lay eggs; instead lays its eggs in the nests of other birds species such as waxbills, sparrows, and weavers.

The host bird will then incubate the cuckoo egg and care for the chick once it hatches. The African cuckoo chick will often out-compete the host chick for resources like food as the host bird feeds all chicks equally.

Demography and Populations

The African cuckoo is distributed across a broad range in Africa, and its population is believed to be stable. However, habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activities are significant concerns for the species’ long-term survival.

The bird is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change and may experience range shifts as a result. Although the population trend is believed to be upwards overall, the African cuckoo is classified as ‘least concern’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

However, monitoring it is key to ensure populations remain stable, as the species plays a critical ecological role in controlling insect populations in its range.


In conclusion, the African cuckoo exhibits unique behaviors such as its rapid and acrobatic flight, agonistic behavior and its parasitic breeding strategy. It is a well-adapted species to its habitats, and its population is believed to be relatively stable.

The species plays an essential role in controlling insect populations in its range. However, human activities such as habitat loss and fragmentation pose a significant threat to the species’ long-term survival.

Further, the species is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, highlighting the critical need to maintain and monitor its populations. The African Cuckoo is a fascinating bird species with unique characteristics that include its brood parasitic breeding strategy, varied diet, acrobatic flight, and remarkable navigational ability.

The species plays a critical role in controlling insect populations in its range, highlighting its ecological importance. However, the African cuckoo is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation and other human activities.

The species’ range is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Therefore, conservation efforts are necessary to maintain and monitor its populations to ensure the species’ long-term survival.

With continued conservation efforts, the African cuckoo can remain an important component of Africa’s rich biodiversity.

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