Common cuckoo Cuculus canorus, adult male perched on a post, Stow Maries, Essex

Cuckoo migration

Migration can be daunting for young cuckoos as they must find their own way to Africa!

What we know about cuckoo migration

Cuckoos have a crafty breeding strategy. Instead of building their own nest, they use the nests of ‘host’ birds, such as dunnocks and meadow pipits. When a female cuckoo finds a suitable nest, and the hosts aren’t looking, she removes one of their eggs and lays her own egg in its place. 

The young cuckoo hatches after only 12 days and quickly pushes the hosts’ eggs or babies out of the nest. After 19 days it leaves the nest, but the hosts continue to feed it for two more weeks, by which time it has grown much bigger than them. 

Adult cuckoos are among the earliest of our summer visitors to leave. They have no need to help rear their young, so they are free to go. Most leave the UK during July. Young cuckoos leave about one month later, when they are fully fledged. They never see their parents.

We don’t know much about cuckoo migration routes. Cuckoos from the UK probably travel down through central Europe to the south of Italy, where they feed up before crossing to Africa. Some scientists think that they then cross the Mediterranean and Sahara in a single flight of more than 3,000 km (1,875 miles). 

The only ringed cuckoo recaptured in Africa was from Cameroon, in central Africa, but we know that many travel farther south than this. In Africa, cuckoos never call, so most probably go unnoticed.