Oriental cuckoo (Cuculus optatus)

Also known as: dove cuckoo, Horsfield’s cuckoo, northern muted cuckoo
Synonyms: Cuculus horsfieldi
GenusCuculus (1)
SizeLength: 30 - 32 cm (2)
Wingspan: 51 - 57 cm (2)
Weight73 - 156 g (2)
Top facts

The oriental cuckoo is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A relatively secretive bird (2), the Oriental cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) was formerly considered a subspecies of the Himalayan cuckoo (Cuculus saturatus), but was accepted as a separate species in 2005 (1). Male Oriental cuckoos are ashy-grey on the head and back, while the wings are darker grey and the tail is blackish with small white spots (3).

The lower breast and belly of the male Oriental cuckoo are white and marked with small black bars, whereas the chin and upper breast are ashy-grey. The undertail- and underwing-coverts are buff-coloured, and there are narrow black bars on the underwing. The feathers at the top of the male’s wing form a grey band, and there is a broad off-white band across the flight feathers (3). The male Oriental cuckoo’s eyes are normally yellow, or occasionally brownish-orange, and both adults have a blackish bill with an orange-yellow or greenish-yellow base (4).

Adult female Oriental cuckoos have two colour morphs, a grey morph and a rufous morph. The grey morph is similar to the adult male, with the exception of a yellow-brown tinge on the upper and lower breast and narrower black bars on the belly. The rufous morph female has upperparts barred with chestnut, a dark brown rump, and uppertail-coverts with reddish-brown and dark brown bars. The wings are also barred dark brown and rufous, while the underparts are barred blackish and pale chestnut (3). The female Oriental cuckoo’s eyes are yellowish, occasionally red or red-brown, or very rarely all brown (4).

The juvenile Oriental cuckoo is bluish-grey on the top of the head and on the back, with a white patch on the back of the neck. The wing-coverts are also slate grey, with thin white edges, and the primary and secondary feathers have brown notches. The blackish tail has a white bar at the tip, as well as a few complete or partial white bars across the feathers. Incomplete black barring is seen on the buff-coloured undertail-coverts. The juvenile Oriental cuckoo’s chin and breast are black, sometimes with narrow white bars, and the belly is barred black and white, while the underwing-coverts are whitish. The eyes are brown (3) and the bill and gape are duller than the adult’s (4).

The Oriental cuckoo is normally silent outside of the breeding season (2). However, when vocal the male gives a low-pitched, two-note ‘hoop-hoop’, and the female produces a bubbling ‘quick-quick-quick’ trill. Additional calls include grating croaks, chuckles and a rough ‘gaak-gaak-gak-ak-ak-ak’ (3).

The Oriental cuckoo has an extremely large range (5), breeding from Siberia to the Himalayas, across Southeast Asia, southern China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan (6). Over winter this species migrates to the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, the Philippines, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, northern and eastern Australia, and occasionally as far as New Zealand (2).

The Oriental cuckoo has also appeared as a vagrant species in the Ukraine, Israel and Alaska (2).

As in other cuckoo species, the abundance of the Oriental cuckoo in different parts of its range varies considerably between years. In its breeding grounds, its distribution is dependent on food availability, particularly the availability of caterpillars (6).

Mainly inhabiting forests, the Oriental cuckoo occurs in mixed, deciduous and coniferous forest (2). It is present at all levels of the forest canopy, and can be found at a range of elevations (7), occasionally being recorded in mountains as high up as 1,100 metres (8).

The Oriental cuckoo is a solitary and rather elusive species (2) (7). Its diet consists of insects and their larvae (2), with a particular preference for caterpillars (6). The Oriental cuckoo forages for prey on the ground and in trees and bushes (2).

As a brood parasite, the female Oriental cuckoo lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species. Phylloscopus warbler nests are particularly favourable, such as those of the Arctic warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), eastern crowned warbler (Phylloscopus coronatus) and willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus). Additionally, the olive-backed pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) or Asian stubtail (Urosphena squameiceps) may also be chosen as hosts. The Oriental cuckoo’s eggs occasionally mimic those of the host species, and are smooth, shiny and variable in colour. The chosen host species incubates the eggs for around 12 days until the naked hatchlings emerge. A few days after hatching, the young Oriental cuckoo pushes the eggs or young of the host species from the nest, and the young cuckoo fledges after approximately 17 to 19 days (2).

The Oriental cuckoo moult takes place from around late September or early October to May each year (4). This species has heavy, shallow wing beats, and flight is rapid and direct (9).

There is currently no evidence of any population decline in or threats to the Oriental cuckoo, and its population is considered to be stable (5).

There are no known conservation measures in place at present for the Oriental cuckoo.

Find out more about the Oriental cuckoo:

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2012)
  2. MobileReference (2009) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of European Birds: An Essential Guide to Birds of Europe. MobileReference, Boston.
  3. Payne, R. (2005) The Cuckoos. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Erritzøe, J., Mann, C., Brammer, F. and Fuller, R. (2012) Cuckoos of the World. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  5. BirdLife International - Oriental cuckoo (November, 2012)
  6. Thompson III, B., Blom, E. and Gordon, J. (2005) Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
  7. Kennedy, R., Gonzales, P., Dickinson, E., Miranda, H. and Fisher, T. (2000) A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Dutson, G. (2011) Birds of Melanesia: Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  9. Brazil, M. (2009) Birds of East Asia. A&C Black Publishers, London.