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 the woodpigeon or the collared dove. This is your guide on how to tell them apart, as well as one of our other rare summer visitors, the turtle 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 any keen musicians, 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 at moderate speed with regular shallow wing beats. They’re very easy to confuse with a small bird of prey in flight. Indeed, cuckoos are often mobbed by small birds, probably because of their resemblance to raptors - in both shape and colour. This may be an evolutionary strategy that helps them locate the nests of target ‘host’ species, by flushing the host parent bird off the nest, thereby giving away the nest location. The female cuckoo can then sneak in and lay her egg.

Nesting

Cuckoos have famously deceptive breeding habits. Females lay one egg at a time in a number 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 south again 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 meadow pipits, reed warblers or dunnocks in the UK, then feed and care for the chick as if it were their own.

Where to look

Cuckoos are migratory birds, the adults spend just a few short months in the UK from April to June/July with juveniles departing a little later in the summer. They can be found across the UK, preferring rural habitats, particularly open woodland, upland heath, marsh and reedbed. 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.


While most people know what a cuckoo sounds like, fewer will have actually heard one. Across the UK as a whole, the State of UK Birds Report 2020 said numbers of cuckoos have fallen 53% between 1970 and 2018. As a result, they joined the UK Red-list of birds of highest conservation concern in 2009. But the situation varies across countries, with cuckoos in Wales doing better, and those in Scotland doing much better, than those in England.

Research supported by the RSPB shows the areas and habitats where cuckoos have declined most matches with areas where important insect food for adult cuckoos – hairy caterpillars and grasshoppers – has also declined. The changes are also linked with how we have shaped our countryside – particularly in the lowlands, where land use has become much more intensive in the last 75 years. We have lost large areas of wilder habitats - rough grassland and scrub – replaced by industrial farming, development and roads. It is these places - now rare in the lowlands but still widespread in the uplands in the north and west - that are rich in cuckoo food and other wildlife too. So if you want to see or hear a cuckoo, go to where the messy wild places are – heathlands, native woodlands, scrubland, rough grassland and wetlands. Nature reserves are often very good for them.

Cuckoo song

David Farrow, Xeno-canto

Don't let threatened birds fade away

Will you help us to save our threatened birds? The number of birds at severe risk in the UK has nearly doubled. Our birds are struggling to find safe places to nest and enough food to feed their young. They urgently need our help. Find out about the RSPB’s work to save our threatened birds, and discover simple ways you can help them to thrive. Together, we can save our birds.

Collared dove

A garden regular

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: 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 woodpigeons and feral pigeons, 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. A sparse nest of twigs on top of a satellite dish or outdoor security light is highly likely to be a collared dove. 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, having spread naturally all the way across Europe from the Middle East. They can now be seen almost anywhere here, 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

Turtle Dove

Europe’s only migratory dove

Visual Identification

  • Smaller than cuckoo or collared dove - slightly larger than a blackbird 
  • Wings have an intricate pattern of chestnut and black. 
  • Dark brown tail feathers with white tips, seen best on take-off
  • Dusky grey/lilac breast
  • Grey head with a black and white striped patch on the neck  
  • Dark pink legs 
  • Orange eyes and a pink-red eye-ring
  • Fast, direct flight and quick take-off

Call

Listen out for a rolling “purrrr-purrrr-purrrr” call, usually in sequences of threes. This “tur-tur” call gives the bird its scientific name Streptopelia turtur, and the English “turtle” derivation. Keep an ear out for them between April and September. The turtle dove’s gentle purr is an evocative sound of summer but has become increasingly rare. The main reason in the UK, and across much of northern Europe has been the loss of suitable seeds from our countryside, because of more intensive farming methods. This lack of food has greatly reduced the numbers of chicks raised each summer. Until recently the decline was made worse by unsustainable hunting in southern Europe when the birds were returning to Africa.


Turtle doves are on the Red list in the 2021 UK Conservation Status Report, and have been since 1996. 

Migration

UK-breeding turtle doves migrate every year to and from West Africa, stopping in North Africa and South-west Europe to rest and feed along the way. They fly mostly at night during their migration, reaching speeds of 60km/hour. They typically arrive in the UK in late April and depart in August or September.

Nesting

When turtle doves arrive in the UK in spring, they build nests in dense scrub and tall and wide hedgerows. They prefer thorny species, such as hawthorn and blackthorn and will often build nests among climbers, including honeysuckle. These provide good nest concealment and protection. Turtle doves mate for life, with the adults coming together in spring to start laying clutches of two eggs, and sharing incubation duties. 

Where to look

In the UK, turtle doves are now mainly found in southern and eastern England although some can be seen further north and west. They prefer dense thorny mature scrub, hedgerows and woodland edges, open land with scattered bushes. They eat seeds, and feed on the ground in open sparsely vegetated patches, weedy areas or in the short stubble after a harvest. Wildflower and smaller crops seeds are important food sources.

Turtle dove song

Niels Krabbe, Xeno-Canto

Time is running out for turtle doves

You’re unlikely to confuse the soothing purr of a turtle dove for a cuck-cooing cuckoo. Sadly, that purr has become much rarer, with turtle dove numbers dropping by 98% between 1970 and 2018 making them the UK’s fastest-declining breeding bird. The Operation Turtle Dove partnership is working to improve the fortunes of this special bird by working with land managers and communities to create the right conditions for them to raise the next generation.

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 birds we’re talking about here, 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 like the collared dove, the emphasis of the call is often on the second syllable. Some say it sounds a little like they’re saying “a PROUD wood-pig-eon”, but others think it’s more like, “wood WOOD wood pig-eon”. It often breaks off at the end, as though the bird was interrupted or got bored.

Flight

Woodpigeons are easily startled and will perform rather a loud and clattering 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 ‘crop milk’ during their early days. This is produced in the crop of the adult bird and isn’t that different in composition 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.