Birds of Shakespeare: The cuckoo

Common cuckoo
Common Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus by Missy Dunaway. 30×22 inches, acrylic ink on paper. Click to see the painting key.

With the cuckoo, we continue following artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website BirdsofShakespeare.com.


Thanks to its peculiar reproductive cycle, distant migration, and haunting melodies, the cuckoo may hold the title for most folklore among Shakespeare’s birds. I have divided the cuckoo’s analysis into three parts; one for each of the major fables:

The Cuckoo and Cuckold

The common cuckoo is a parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, entrusting foster birds to raise their young unknowingly. A master mimicker, the cuckoo’s patterning and shape in flight resemble a sparrowhawk to frighten away potential hosts, presenting the opportunity to lay its egg. The egg has a short gestation period, allowing the chick to hatch early and roll remaining host eggs out of the nest, killing them. The chick is a giant compared to its hosts and quickly fills the cavity of the nest, requiring care and feeding from both foster parents.

The cuckoo’s parasitic reproductive cycle has been observed and remarked upon for centuries, inspiring the term “cuckold” to describe the husband of an adulterous wife. A cuckold wouldn’t exist without a cuckoo—the two are inextricably tied—so I have added the word “cuckold” to the cuckoo’s count.

A cuckold expels his energy and resources on an offspring while not benefitting from securing his legacy and preserving his family lineage. This disparaging term does not apply to all parents of adoptive young—only a father who unwittingly raises a child that is a product of infidelity. Obliviousness is a paramount feature of a cuckold, who is seen as gullible and dull-witted.[1]

The cuckoo appears in Shakespeare as a boogeyman to married men, especially aging husbands who struggle to capture the affections of their young brides. It was believed a cuckold would grow horns from the top of his head, embarrassing and emasculating him in front of his community.

In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes obsesses about his pregnant wife’s suspected infidelities. He grows agitated by imagining public shame and refers to cuckoos, cuckolds, and horns with quickening frequency as he spirals into delusion:

The Winter’s Tale, Act 1, Scene 2, Line 232

Leontes: Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!
Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play. There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there’s comfort in’t
Whiles other men have gates and those gates open’d,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves.

Paulina implores Leontes to accept Hermione’s newborn baby
Paulina implores Leontes to accept Hermione’s newborn baby. Winter’s tale, Implored him to have mercy on his innocent wife and child by Louis Rhead, created not after 1918. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Although the cuckold is perceived as a fool, the cuckoo itself is somewhat beloved in folklore. The character is usually depicted as a fun-loving playboy skirting adult responsibilities. The cuckoo fulfills the adolescent fantasy of living indulgently without taking responsibility for one’s actions, inspiring both ire and envy from those around it.

Egg ejection was not observed until 1788 by Colonel George Montague, which angered the scientific community who refused to accept the endearing bird could have a sinister side.[2] Shakespeare did not mention egg-ejection, but he did point out the danger of a tiny host feeding a monstrous, insatiable offspring. The Fool hinted at the cuckoo’s murderous streak in King Lear:

King Lear, Act I, Scene 4, Line 220

Fool: For you know, nuncle,
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That it had it head bit off by it young.
So out went the candle, and we were left darkling.

This quote provides a kernel of scientific truth by correctly identifying the cuckoo’s favorite host. In King Lear and 1 Henry IV, The Bard singles out the hedge-sparrow as the cuckoo’s victim. It is true the cuckoo’s favorite hosts are the hedge-sparrow (also known as a dunnock), reed warbler, or redstart.[3] This telling detail would most likely be gathered through observation, revealing that Shakespeare was possibly a bird watcher, naturalist, or avid outdoorsman.

This detail also reminds us that Elizabethans in general had a close relationship with nature, which was abundant and accessible. Natural creatures -especially domestic fowl and caged songbirds- lived side-by-side with people in everyday life. Backyard bird behavior was likely as familiar to Elizabethans as dog behavior is to readers today.[4]

The Cuckoo’s Springtime Song

The promiscuous cuckoo is also a prominent symbol of spring, the mating season. The cuckoo was seen as the bringer of spring, and its call is celebrated as the first sign of the season.[5] Several springtime wildflowers are attributed to cuckoos: ragged robin, lords and ladies, and lady’s smock are all nicknamed “cuckoo-flowers.”[6] The “cuckoo-buds that paint the meadow with delight,” described in the final act of Love’s Labour’s Lost, are debated among scholars— buttercups are the choice represented in my painting.[7]

The cuckoo’s call is recorded in the thirteenth-century song, “Sumer is icumen in,” presumed to be the first ballad written in the English language and the oldest example of English secular music.[8] The following was translated from the Wessex dialect of Middle English:

Summer is come in,
Loud sing cuckoo;
The seed groweth and the mead bloweth,
And the wood shoots now;
Sing cuckoo.
The ewe bleats after the lamb,
The cow lows after the calf;
The bullock starts, the buck verts,
Merrily sing cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo;
Well singest thou cuckoo,
Mayest thou never cease.

The name “cuckoo” is an onomatopoeia for its distinctive song. It was believed the number of “kook-ooos” it bellowed predicted how many years one had until marriage, how many children one would bear, or how many years remained until death—whichever interpretation was most relevant to the listener.[9] The clown in All’s Well that Ends Well hints at the prognostic talents of the cuckoo:

All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 3, Line 59

Clown: A prophet I, madam; and I speak the truth the next way:
For I the ballad will repeat,
Which men full true shall find;
Your marriage comes by destiny,
Your cuckoo sings by kind.

The cuckoo’s song changes at the end of the season, indicating its imminent journey south. The springtime announcement is clear and pleasing to the ear, but the later call is noticeably haggard. King Henry alludes to the cuckoo’s “June Song” during a monologue in 1 Henry IV while reminiscing about Richard II, from whom he usurped the throne. During his indulgent and irresponsible reign, Richard II lost the respect of his people, and King Henry warns his impetuous son, Prince Hal, of a similar fate:

1 Henry IV, Act 3, Scene 2, Line 77

He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes;
But rather drowzed and hung their eyelids down,
Slept in his face and render’d such aspect
As cloudy men use to their adversaries,
Being with his presence glutted, gorged and full.

cuckoo
A sparrowhawk confronts the look-a-like cuckoo in Aesop’s fable, “The Hawk and the Cuckoo.” This image is from The fables of Aesop paraphras’d in verse, and adorn’d with sculpture by John Ogilby” (1651). Folger Shakespeare Library

The Cuckoo, Transformed

The cuckoo migrates south to spend the winter in northern Africa, but for the residents who remained at home, it was a mystery where cuckoos disappeared to in August. Like the barnacle goose, theories fixated on transformation. It was believed the cuckoo would shapeshift into a tree stump to sleep the winter through. Another idea drew inspiration from the cuckoo’s talent for mimicry and suggested that it became a sparrowhawk.[10]

Just like the mysterious playwright himself, the elusive nature of the cuckoo fascinated observers and inspired stories that captivate the imagination and nod at the truth. The cuckoo sweeps a myriad of folktales and legends into Shakespeare’s work, bringing magic with each mention of its name—even to an offended cuckold.


[1] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 167.

[2] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 147-156.

[3] Coward, T.A., Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs. 2nd ed. (London: Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1975), 208.

[4] Bach, Rebecca Ann. Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature, (New York: Routledge, 2018), 13.

[5] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 165.

[6] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 165.

[7] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 147-156.

[8] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 147-156.

[9] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 165.

[10] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 166.