How do you catch a Cuckoo?

Catching Cuckoos is not an easy task. They are notorious for getting out of mist nets – a usual method for licensed bird ringers to safely catch birds – and many a ringer has stories of chasing a Cuckoo along a net line, only for it to escape at the other end.

Putting up a mist net

Stuffed female Cuckoo, used to attract males into the nets.

    Being large, long-winged and with soft plumage, Cuckoos do not tend to get caught up in the standard nets with small mesh, so a new method was required.

    Fortunately, we were able to seek advice and help from a number of sources including colleagues from the University of Copenhagen (Kasper Thorup and Mikkel Kristensen) and BTO licensed bird ringers, Paul Noakes and Justin Walker.

    • Catching Cuckoos requires a special ringing permit and licence, to ensure the birds are handled safely and by fieldworkers who have been trained appropriately.

    Perfect kit for catching Cuckoos

    Paul Noakes is an expert Cuckoo catcher, and for this project had invested in two new large-mesh mist nets. Mist nets are made of fine nylon mesh suspended between poles – a very effective method for safely catching birds. The large-mesh nets proved to be perfect for catching Cuckoos and every bird that entered the net was caught.

    Understanding Cuckoo behaviour

    Having the right gear is only part of the solution. Catching birds can be more of an art than science, and it is useful to understand how birds behave before setting out to catch them.

    Male Cuckoos like to sit on tall trees and sing the ‘Cuck-oo’ song that everyone is familiar with. To catch them you need to get them to come down low to the height of the mist net.

    The ideal site is a low isolated bush well away from any tall trees. We place two nets around the bush in a V-shape and play a recording of the female’s bubbling call and the male’s ‘Cuck-oo’ in the middle. Thinking a female and possibly a rival are in the area, the male will come to investigate, often dive-bombing in low within seconds of the recording tape being played.

    Paul had an additional trick up his sleeve, namely a stuffed female Cuckoo on a post. She proved her worth on a number of occasions as at least two birds attempted to mate with her. 

    However, when a real live female was around, there was no contest, and we had a number of fruitless catching sessions where males spent their time chasing real females and took no notice of our set-up at all.

    How to tag a Cuckoo

    Support the project

    “I have been following the progress of all the cuckoos, and more specifically AJ whom I  sponsored, for many weeks now and I wanted to let you know how much pleasure it has given me. What a feat for such plucky little birds! They are incredible. I will continue to track them all.”

    Sponsor a Cuckoo

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