How to tell your coo from a cuckoo

The cuckoo has probably the most distinctive and instantly recognisable call of any bird in the UK. It even says its name!

However, in the hullabaloo of spring birdsong, it’s surprisingly easy to mix up that distant cuck-coo with the cooing call of two much more common and familiar birds: the woodpigeon, and the collared dove.

Cuckoo

Nature’s ultimate trickster

Visual Identification

  • Grey/blue on top, light belly with dark barring
  • Yellow eyes and feet
  • Strong similarity to sparrowhawks
  • Sleek body, long tail, pointed wings
  • Often drops its wings when perched

Call

It says its name: “cuck-coo”. The call is usually very clear and has two syllables that descend from the first note to the second. For anyone who wants to get nerdily technical, the interval of the call starts as a minor third in spring, and then usually changes to a perfect fourth later in the summer. The earliest you’re likely to be able to hear a cuckoo calling is mid-April, and the latest is June, so outside of that period, you’re probably hearing something else. The female cuckoo has a very different call, sometimes described as a ‘bubbling chuckle’.

Flight

Flies with regular wing beats at moderate speed. They’re very easy to confuse with a bird of prey in flight. Indeed, cuckoos are often mobbed by small birds, probably because of their resemblance to raptors. This may be an evolutionary strategy to help them locate the nests of target species, and help flush the parents so that they can sneak in and lay their egg.

Nesting

Cuckoos have famously deceptive breeding habits! Females lay one egg in a variety of host nests (always the same species they themselves were raised by) and then play no further part in chick rearing. That’s why they're able to migrate so early in the summer. When the egg hatches, the young cuckoo evicts any other eggs or chicks in the nest. Its new ‘parents’, often dunnocks or reed warblers, then feed and care for the chick as if it were their own.

Where to look

Cuckoos can be found across the UK, but they prefer rural habitats, particularly open woodland, heath, marsh, and occasionally arable land. They tend to avoid built-up areas, but you may hear them calling near the fringes of more rural towns and villages. They’re not normally a garden bird, and you’re far more likely to hear one than see one, as they’re quite secretive, and the call can carry for some distance.

Cuckoo song

David Farrow, Xeno-canto

Red alert

 Common cuckoo Cuculus canorus, perched on a branch, Stow Maries, Essex

Very few of us are lucky enough to hear the uplifting summer call of the cuckoo anymore. The BTO estimates that cuckoo numbers have declined by 65% since the early 1980s, and they became a red-listed bird in 2009. We're not sure why their numbers have plummeted, but it may be to related to climate change, or stem from problems along their migration routes. You can help us understand what is driving their decline and secure the future of all our red-listed birds.

Collared dove

A new addition

Visual Identification

  • Pale buff/grey plumage with white edges to the wings
  • Black collar at back of neck, absent in juveniles
  • A little smaller than urban pigeons
  • Bobs head when walking
  • Often seen perched on wires and buildings

Call

Unlike the cuckoo, the collared dove call always has three syllables: “coo-coo-coo”. The first two coos are longer, and the emphasis is usually on the second coo. One way to remember it is to say: “two-LONGS, short”, or a football chant like “un-I-ted” in time with the call. It’s usually on the same note, but not always and can sound a bit hoarse and broken. They sometimes call repeatedly and rather relentlessly, particularly in spring, and can start from very early in the morning. They have a second call which sounds a bit like someone blowing through a kazoo, and their wings often make a distinctive whistling sound when they take off.

Flight

Strong fliers, they can travel a long way from where they hatched, which is how they’ve managed to spread so quickly. You may see the males performing a display flight, where they fly almost straight up, high in the sky, clapping their wings, before gliding downwards.

Nesting

Like all pigeons and doves, collared doves can breed at any time of the year, depending on the conditions, but March is when they often start. They like conifers, often garden hedges, but will also use buildings or other structures, and build a messy nest of sticks. They’re monogamous birds, and females tend to brood the eggs all day, while the males sit on the nest all night.

Where to look

Collared doves only arrived in the UK in the 1950s, but they can now be seen almost anywhere, at any time of the year. They’re a common sight in gardens and will use feeders, if they can perch on them, or pick up spillage from underneath. They’re often seen in pairs.

Collared dove call

David Farrow, Xeno-canto

Time is running out for turtle doves

You’re unlikely to confuse the soothing purr of a turtle dove for a cooing cuckoo. But sadly, that purr could soon disappear altogether, as turtle doves are now the UK’s fastest-declining bird. You can help give them back the seeds, hedgerows and ponds they need to feed their families.

Woodpigeon

Big bird on the block

Visual Identification

  • Big, chunky birds
  • The commonest pigeon in the UK
  • Dark grey backs, pink/purple breasts
  • White patches on the neck and wings
  • Very noisy on take-off

Call

Despite being the biggest of the three birds, the woodpigeon’s call is often the subtlest. Sometimes loud, it can also be soft and gentle with a purring or bubbling quality. It’s also the longest, with five syllables per section “coo-coo-coo-coo-coo”, and again, the emphasis of the call is often on the second syllable. A good mnemonic is, “a PROUD wood-pig-eon”, but you could also use, “wood WOOD wood pig-eon”. It often breaks off at the end, as though the bird was interrupted.

Flight

Woodpigeons are easily startled and will perform rather a loud and messy take off, but they’re strong fliers once in the air. They perform similar display flights to collared doves, flying straight up with wing claps, then gliding down.

Nesting

Like the collared dove, woodpigeons can breed all year, but most commonly its between April and October. They feed their chicks something called ‘crop milk’ during their early days. This is produced in the crop of the adult bird and isn’t that different from the milk that mammals produce to feed their young.

Where to look

Woodpigeons are a very common bird across the UK. Historically associated with farmland and woodland, where they can form large flocks, they can now be found in towns and suburbs, often in gardens with birdfeeders, or where there are vegetables growing. They’re very partial to young peas and brassicas, like kale, but they’ll also eat weeds like dandelions. They’re fun birds to watch, as they’re full of character, with interesting interactions between males and females.

Wood pigeon call

Jelmer Poelstra, Xeno-canto

Minimise meal-time mess

Many birds can’t use traditional hanging feeders. Some, like blackbirds, prefer to stay on the ground, and some, like woodpigeons, are just too big! To feed a wider range of birds, and help minimise mess, why not put up a bird table? Dunnocks, robins and thrushes will also be grateful table diners.

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