Breeding ground correlates of the distribution and decline of the Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus at two spatial scales

Cuckoo - Edmund Fellowes

Author(s): Denerley, C., Redpath, S.M., van der Wal, R., Newson, S.E., Chapman, J.W. & Wilson, J.D.

Published: June 2018  

Journal: Ibis

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1111/ibi.12612

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Although we have lost over three-quarters of the UK Cuckoo population, we are unsure of the causes of this decline. Alongside this, the strong divide in northern and southern populations of Cuckoo and their local trends are cause to question why the local differences arise. 

This study, led by PhD student Chloe Denerley and using BTO's BBS data, used local data from Devon in comparison against data on Cuckoos and their hosts, habitats, and prey items. In Devon, Cuckoos were more likely to be found in areas with semi-natural habitat and more Meadow Pipits (but fewer Dunnocks) and with a higher number of moth species, which are predated by Cuckoos in late summer. Across the UK, Cuckoos have become more associated with upland heath with Meadow Pipits, and with wetland habitats with Reed Warblers, and the distribution of Cuckoos shifting from south to north within the UK. The abundance of moth species preyed upon by Cuckoos has declined four times faster than that of other moths.

Overall, the results suggest that Cuckoos have contracted out of the farmed countryside and into heathlands and the uplands. Coordinated monitoring of moth, host and Cuckoo numbers across such projects could tell us much about the long-term prospects for reversing Cuckoo population decline in the UK


Many migratory bird species are undergoing population declines as a result of potentially multiple, interacting mechanisms. Understanding the environmental associations of spatial variation in population change can help tease out the likely mechanisms involved. Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus populations have declined by 69% in England but increased by 33% in Scotland. The declines have mainly occurred in lowland agricultural landscapes, but their mechanisms are unknown. At both the local scale within the county of Devon (SE England) and at the national (UK) scale, we analysed the breeding season distribution of Cuckoos in relation to habitat variation, the abundance of host species and the abundance of moth species whose caterpillars are a key food of adult Cuckoos. At the local scale, we found that Cuckoos were more likely to be detected in areas with more semi-natural habitat, more Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis (but fewer Dunnocks Prunella modularis) and where, later in the summer, higher numbers of moths were captured whose larvae are Cuckoo prey. Nationally, Cuckoos have become more associated with upland heath characterized by the presence of Meadow Pipit hosts, and with wetland habitats occupied by Eurasian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus hosts. The core distribution of Cuckoos has shifted from south to north within the UK. By the end of 2009, the abundance of macro-moth species identified as prey had also declined four times faster than that of species not known to be taken by Cuckoos. The abundance of these moths has shown the sharpest declines in grassland, arable and woodland habitats and has increased in semi-natural habitats (heaths and rough grassland). Our study suggests that Cuckoos are likely to remain a very scarce bird in lowland agricultural landscapes without large-scale changes in agricultural practices.
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