How did the cuckoo call become a synonym for someone who is crazy?

I think the OP explains itself. I want to know how this interesting bird’s call became a popular euphemism for someone that has lost his or her sensibilities

This is a secret well-guarded by the insane. You would have to be indoctrinated into our secret cult first. You WILL BE one of US!
In the state of insanity,

  • Jinx

I haven’t been able to find how the two became associated, but according to this, the term first appeared in American slang in 1918.

The European Cuckoo repeats its call incessantly through the day. Therefore the name of the bird became used with someone who speaks senselessly and pointlessly.

But the earlier sense of “stupid person” goes back to 1581.

From The Handbook of Birds of the World:

A much earlier association of the cuckoo with “nonsense” is that of Aristophanes’ setting of his play The Birds in “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.”

Thanks Colibri,

That is getting me close to an answer. I still don’t know where it came from exactly but I can see that it is really old.

Well, the Oxford English Dictionary specifically says:

(first cite listed from 1581)

It’s just a short step from extending the meaning from “foolish,” to “crazy.”

While I don’t believe it’s directly related to the derivation, it’s worth noting that several species of cuckoos from South Asia, particularly the Plaintive and Brush Cuckoos, are known as “Brain-Fever Birds.” Their loud, monotonous calls, repeated incessantly through the sweltering nights of India, were alleged by British colonials to be enough to provoke brain-fever and madness.

I believe this is also where the term “cuckold” comes from - a man unknowingly supporting a child fathered by another.

Yes, the Cuckoo is emblematic of several things:

  1. Spring, since it is a migrant, and its call signals the start of the growing season.

Sumer is icumin in
Lhude sing cuckoo!

  1. Unfaithfulness, because the female lays its eggs in the nest of other birds (hence, cuckold).

  2. Foolishness, due to its repititious call and its lack of care of its own young.

  3. Changeablity, being reputed to change into a Sparrowhawk (which it somewhat resembles) at the end of summer, thus explaining its absence during the winter when it migrates.

In the novel Wuthering Heights, Hindley refers to Heathcliff as a cuckoo, meaning an imposter. Cuckoo birds are brood parasites, meaning that they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Then the unwitting birds raise it as their own if it is not discovered and ejected. The novel was published around 1840 so the common use at that time was used on orphans and bastards to mean they weren’t quite right; didn’t quite fit in. This was taken to mean by some as “behaving oddly” and it was evolved to describe the mentally deficient and those with psychiatric issues. Thus today when someone uses the label it is meant that “they are off in the head”.

I think coo-coo is the inspiration for cray-cray.

Or Ga-ga. All of them imply a bit of infantilism or simple-mindedness by an association with baby-talk or blah-blah.

Are there no other common European birds that do this?

Feel sorry for the delicate Bertie Woosters and can total understand how a bird’s call can make them go bezerk.

Also, Colibri I think you are referring to the hawk cuckoo and not the brush cuckoo. The Koel (hawk cuckoo) is very shy bird - rarely seen but heard spring through summer in India. It’s a bird symbolizing love in poems and folklore. Some people love bird songs and some don’t - I personally love this bird.

So, if the cuckoo is a brood parasite (lays its eggs in another bird’s nest), and presumably doesn’t need to protect a territory to feed its young, why does it call all the time?

Enormous sexual appetite?

A male sets up his territory and then invites mates by calling. He also calls to keep other rival males away.

I have heard (Maybe Colibri can confirm) that the female cuckoo bird can hold its eggs for extended periods until she finds a suitable host.

But once mating season is over (sometime in the spring I assume), why would the cuckoo care about other males coming along? For most birds, they don’t want any others of their species coming along (even after mating) because they’ll compete for food, which the territory’s male needs to feed his kids. But a cuckoo shouldn’t care that much – it’s the host bird that feeds the kids, not the cuckoo. Now the male cuckoo wouldn’t want any other birds of the host species coming in, since they’ll be competing with the host for food to feed the kids, but the cuckoo’s singing wouldn’t keep them out, would it?

Quercus: there remain some options for why the cuckoo has a call. But whenever we do these things, we devolve into “just so” stories. However:

Birds, particularly songbirds (members of the clade Passeri, of the Order: Passeriformes, commonly called perching birds) evolved a call to defend their territories. Cuckoos also evolved the behaviors and morphology to be brood parasites. They don’t need, as much perhaps, to defend territory, but they haven’t evolved the loss of the singing trait because … why would they? They haven’t lost their syrinx – an extra powerful “voice box” outside of the pharynx other vertebrates use to make sounds, so why not use it? Just how much energy would be saved?

Cuckoos may have more complex social order than we realize. Research on crows show they have very complicated social behavior mediated by their song – yeah, that “caw caw” is way more complex than it seems to a layman. Cuckoos aren’t supposed to have a complex social structure, but maybe they do? Maybe male cuckoos keep something like a harem – as in, a reservoir of females, and drive all males away?

Or maybe not. Maybe cuckoos have to drive all rivals away. If too many congregate in one area, they could deplete all broods to parasitize.