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Cuckoos

Species Of Cuckoos

The best-known species in the Cuculidae is the Eurasian cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which breeds widely in forests and thickets of Europe and Asia. This species is the best-studied of the nest-parasites, laying single eggs in the nests of a wide range of smaller species. Although the egg of the Eurasian cuckoo is usually larger than those of the parasitized host, it is often colored in a closely similar way to the host species. Individual Eurasian cuckoos are known to have laid single eggs in as many as 20 nests of other species in one season. The call of the male Eurasian cuckoo is the famous, bi-syllabic: "cuck-coo," a sound that has been immortalized in literature and, of course, in cuckoo-clocks. Northern populations of this species migrate to Africa or southern Asia to spend their non-breeding season.

Two familiar cuckoos of North America are the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) and the black-billed cuckoo (C. erythrophthalmus). Both of these species breed in open woodlands and brushy habitats. The yellow-billed cuckoo ranges over almost all of the United States, southern Ontario, and northern Mexico, and winters in South America. The black-billed cuckoo ranges over southeastern North America, and winters in northwestern South America. This species is most abundant in places where there are local outbreaks of caterpillars. Both of these species build their own nests and raise their two to four babies. However, both species are occasional nest-parasites on other species, including each other.

A much larger American species is the greater road-runner (Geococcyx californianus), a terrestrial bird of dry habitats in the southwestern United States and Central America. The greater roadrunner is the largest cuculid in North America. This species commonly feeds on lizards and snakes, including poisonous rattlesnakes. The greater roadrunner is not a nest-parasite. Roadrunners are fast runners, although not so fast and intelligent as the one that always gets the better of Wile E. Coyote in the famous Warner Bros. cartoons.

Two species of anis breed in North America, the smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani) of southern Florida, and the groove-billed ani (C. sulcirostris) of southern Texas. These species also occur widely in Central and South America, and on many Caribbean islands. Anis build communal, globular, stick-nests in trees. Each of the several cooperating pairs of anis has its own nesting chamber, and incubate their own eggs. Both parents share in the brooding of the eggs and raising of the young, although there is some degree of cooperative feeding of young birds within the commune. Anis have home ranges, but because of their communal nesting, they do not appear to defend a territory.

The coucals are relatively large birds of Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Australasia. Rather weak flyers, coucals are skulking birds that occur near the edges of scrubby and wooded habitats. The greater coucal or crow-pheasant (Centropus sinensis) of southern and southeastern Asia is a large (20 in [53 cm] body length), black, widespread species. Coucals build their own large globular nest of grasses and leaves near the ground in dense vegetation. The male and female share the incubation and rearing of the three to five babies.


Resources

Books

Bird Families of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Meinzer, W. The Roadrunner. Austin: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.


Bill Freedman

KEY TERMS

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Nest-parasite

—A bird that lays its eggs, usually singly, in the nests of other species. The hosts incubate the parasitic egg along with their own, and also rear the baby parasite.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCuckoos - Species of cuckoos