Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Travis Audubon
In the novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, the nursery rhyme echoes throughout the book: “One flies East, One flies West, One flies over the cuckoo’s nest.” Like the bird’s plaintive call, heard all over Europe and the new world, there is universality to the idea that some people are “normal,” and some are sick.
In elementary school we often saw some classmates doing some crazy antics. We learned to put our finger up to our head, write it in a zero around and around our ears, and mark the student as “Cuckoo!” We had the exaggerated eye roll and the sarcastic head nod to complete the gesture.
While there are a lot of people who have been placed into “insane asylums” over the years, it seems strange that the association falls to one of the more unusual birds in the avian world.
The Cuckoo Family
The cuckoo family is quite large; it includes the European cuckoo, roadrunners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals, and anis. These last two species (coucals, and anis) are sometimes segregated as separate species from cuckoos. The cuckoo order, called Cuculiformes, is one of three that make up the Otidimorphae. The other two are known as Turacos and Bustards. In all the family Cuculidae contains 150 species, which are divided into 33 genera.
In general cuckoos are medium-sized, slender birds. Most species live in trees, though quite a few are ground-dwelling, building their nests in dry grasses and other camouflaged plants. Most of the species live in the tropics, though some are migratory. For the most part these species feed on insects, insect larvae, fruit, and a variety of other animals.
One of the most disturbing aspects of these species, similar to the Brown-headed Cowbird, are being known for brood parasitism. What brood parasites refers to is the practice of female cuckoos laying her eggs in the nests of another species, usually the nest of smaller birds. These other species raise the chicks and feed the cuckoos, filling their large beaks with the most insects. Once the chicks mature, the cuckoos kick out or kill the mother’s own nestlings and grow to maturity alone in the nest.
You can see why there is a metaphor for cuckoo’s eggs, as if a family of humans could use the same manner of natural selection. That said, most species raise their own young to fully fledge.
Cuckoos have played a role in human culture for thousands of years, appearing in Greek mythology as sacred to the goddess Hera.
In Europe, the cuckoo is associated with growth and rebirth. Their arrival in the fields and orchards were heralded as the end of winter and a harbinger of spring.
At the same time, following the brood parasite theme, cuckoos have been associated with questionable paternity, as in “there are not my kids, but I will raise them anyway.” The concept of a cuckold is the wife controlling her husband’s sexual habits and children. In biology, a cuckold is a male of the species who unwittingly invests parental efforts in children who are not genetically his offspring. The wife in these relationships is called a cuckquean.
In Shakespeare’s comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the King of Navarre and his three companions promise to swear off the company of women for three years in order to focus on study and fasting. Their infatuation with the Princess of France and her ladies, however, makes them break their oath. The play closes with the death of the Princess’s father, and all weddings are delayed for a year. The play draws on themes of masculine love and desire, reckoning with the reality of feminine love and desire; hence the notion of cuckolds and control of male sexual expression and children.
Interestingly in Japan, the cuckoo symbolizes unrequited love. And in India, the cuckoos are considered sacred to Kamadeva, as a god of desire and sexual longing.
Cuckoos are often hard to spot, but easy to hear. Their call, like their name, is a homonym. Many of the species are named for the sounds they make. The onomatopoetic aspect of bird names and calls is universal. Some of my favorites are Chickadees, Bob Whites, and Peewees.
Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs
Introduced in 1962 is Sonny, the Cuckoo bird who loves the cocoa puffs cereal. What is strange about the General Mills ads is that the bird morphs over time to be a whacko character and even a Toucan, steering away from the cuckoo species all together. Not sure about all of that marketing mayhem.
Feet and Toes
There a lot of color variations and size differences, and all seem to have a down-curved bill, but the most interesting variation to me is the cuckoos feet. Their feet are called zygodactyl (which sounds pre-historic). It refers to their outer toes which are reversed, pointing backwards, which gives them the defensive advantage of secure landings to hide unseen in shrubs and hedges. Their call gives them away.