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What Does "Cuckoo in the Nest" Mean?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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The expression a "cuckoo in the nest" has a range of meanings. It can mean any person or thing found where it doesn't belong and is also used to mean any problem that grows quickly, consuming resources needed for other purposes. In addition, the term is sometimes used to refer to an illegitimate child. The expression has been used as the title of movies, TV shows, and novels.

This phrase derives from the nesting habits of some species of cuckoo, a type of bird. Over 50 species of European cuckoo and three from the New World engage in a nesting behavior called brood parasitism. Instead of raising their own young, brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other species of bird.

Parasitic cuckoos are host-specific, meaning that each species of cuckoo lays its eggs in the nest of only one other species of bird. Cuckoo eggs have evolved to resemble the eggs of these birds, making them difficult to tell apart. When a cuckoo egg hatches, the host bird raises the chick as one of its own. Cuckoo eggs have a short incubation period and young mature quickly, so the bird has an advantage over the host species young. It usually destroys their eggs or evicts them from the nest, then imitates their cries to get the host parent to feed it, allowing the adult cuckoo to conserve its resources while its young consumes resources meant for others.

The cuckoo's nesting behavior has been known to humans since antiquity. Aristotle and Pliny both described the parasitic behavior of the cuckoo. The idea of the "cuckoo in the nest" was used as an analogy for human behavior at least by the Middle Ages. The Old French term cucuault refers to a husband whose wife has been having an affair and who, by implication, is raising children who may not be his. The name derives from the Old French cucu or cuckoo, and is the root of the English world "cuckold."

Contemporary uses of the phrase vary widely. For instance, one might say, "We were surprised when the family dog adopted a kitten and raised it as her own, like a cuckoo in the nest." Other uses for the phrase might highlight its implications of sexual impropriety or theft of resources.

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Discussion Comments
By DylanB — On Aug 01, 2012

I have heard stories of dogs who have a litter of their own being willing to nurse other puppies, as well. In fact, when my friend had a litter of Beagle pups whose mother had just died, she sought out another nursing dog.

I think it is pretty amazing, considering that the mother dog must know she will be drying up in just a few weeks. You would think that she would be concerned that there might not be enough milk to go around, but she just accepts the other puppies as her own.

This is a great trait of female dogs. It means there is hope for pups who no longer have their mothers to rely on for nourishment.

By giddion — On Jul 31, 2012

There have been rumors in my husband's family that they have a cuckoo in the nest. He has three sisters, and though he and two of his sisters resemble both their mother and father, one sister looks nothing like the father.

She is short and stout like their mother, but she has none of their father's distinctive features. They knew that their mother did have affairs in the past, so there is a strong likelihood that the one sister is a “cuckoo.”

She has never liked their father, and he has had a mutual dislike for her. This just isn't natural. So, they all have come to believe that she isn't his.

By orangey03 — On Jul 31, 2012

@seag47 – Cuckoos don't build their own nests. I have read that they have been seen laying an egg right on the ground and picking it up with their bills to take it to someone else's nest.

I don't know how deceitful we can actually say that they are, though. This may just be the way they are hard-wired to act. It is possible that they cannot even help themselves.

Still, it does seem to be pretty rough behavior, especially for a baby bird. Killing its adopted siblings makes it seem a little on the evil side.

By seag47 — On Jul 30, 2012

So, do cuckoos even have nests of their own? If they don't lay eggs in their own, then what need would they even have of one?

It sounds to me like the cuckoo is the ultimate con artist. I didn't even know that this sort of complicated trickery existed in nature. I thought only humans were deceitful enough to pull off something like this.

Cuckoos have long been associated with being crazy. It sounds to me like they are so sane that they can develop evil schemes to rip off other birds!

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