Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets


Out the flapping doors springs a little mechanical bird. Coo-coo! Coo-coo! Admittedly kitschy and somewhat annoying, it likewise has to be one of the cutest and most delightful inventions of all time.

Since emerging from the German Black Forest region in the eighteenth century (1), the cuckoo clock has become a cultural icon. If having never seen or heard one firsthand, you still likely know what one is. After all, the device appears in literature and art, even cartoons and pop music. It remains a cultural fixture of the West.

The staying power of the cuckoo is all the more impressive when considering that avian automatons have existed for more than two thousand years. Bird-themed devices that simulate the calls and motions of the real thing have exerted an alluring pull on people’s imaginations. But what are we to make of this? And, specifically, why has the cuckoo become the modern standard-bearer of avis mechanica and clockwork figures?

Ancient Feats of Fowl Engineering

As far as bird-styled mechanical clocks and automatons go, the cuckoo clock is a relative latecomer. At least a couple millennia before the Black Forest community of craftsmen popularized their iconic inventions, ancient Greek scientists had put forward their own designs. Archytas’s wooden pigeon employed weights and pressurized air for flight (2). Ktesibios’s mechanical water clock featured birds that whistled with the turning of each hour (3). Later, utilizing similar pneumatic and water principles, Hero of Alexandra and Philo of Byzantium conceived their versions of artificial singing birds (4, 5).

With the fall of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages, interest in mechanical inventions declined. Of course, such contraptions eventually returned with greater flair and refinement. For instance, inside the ninth-century Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’s lavishly furnished throne room supposedly sang mechanical birds forged in gold (6). More than a thousand years later, William Butler Yeats reimagined these warbling automata in his “Sailing to Byzantium” (7) and “Byzantium,” as the songsters represent the “artifice of eternity” for which the poems’ speaker longs. While previous literary works containing songbird gadgetry, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” suggest a leeriness towards machines (8, 9), Yeats’s poems welcome the “glory of changeless metal” over “complexities of mire or blood.” (10)

Of course, humanity’s fascination with technology continued well beyond Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). During Europe’s middle and late medieval periods, pleasure gardens and rooms featuring mechanical birds sprung up principally in the Islamic world. Such automata were noted in the palace courtyard of al-Muqtadir, the early tenth-century caliph of Baghdad (11). Technology like this developed a few centuries later in Western Europe. Around 1300, avian automata were reportedly installed at the Hesdin chateau in Artois, France (12). Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli depicted elaborate designs in his 1588 Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine, some featuring mechanical birds (13). Among the oddest of simulacrum contraptions, though, occurred one and half centuries after Ramelli’s work. The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson began demonstrating an artificial duck in 1738 that was said to mimic the actual waterfowl’s behavior, including activities such as eating and defecating (14).

About Time

The clockmakers of the Middle Ages returned to the avian theme initiated by Ktesibios. Timekeeping designs, like their automata counterparts, also steadily became more sophisticated. Syrian engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206) envisioned an “Elephant clock,” which atop a pachyderm replica included a whistling mechanical bird (15). Several centuries later, clockwork masterpieces in Western Europe featured mechanically animated crowing roosters. Among these, one was installed in 1573 at the cathedral of Strasburg, Germany, and another the following century within the royal apartments of Versailles, France (16). By the 1700s, the cuckoo clock emerged an exciting novelty from the southwestern mountains of Germany. Later productions included additional favorites, such as blackbirds and nightingales (17).

Feathered creatures are an obvious choice for clocks, for birds have long been linked to time. Even Yeats’s eternal songsters in “Sailing to Byzantium” trill “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Such connections have much to do with avifauna’s migratory instincts. As American writer Jim Harrison eloquently states in one his poems:

Most birds own the ancient clock of north and south, a clock that never had hands, the god-time with which the universe began. (18)

The times of day or seasons when birds are heard, thus, are rich with temporal associations. Roosters, due to their morning calls, are connected with the day and sun, just as owls, for their nocturnal habits, are to the night and the moon. Swallows return in the spring, and cuckoos in the summer, an observation noted in a sixteenth-century English poem of Geoffrey Whitney (19). Regarding the cuckoo, migratory connections, as well as the simplicity and familiarity of its call, most likely account for the bird’s popularity.

Let’s not overlook that cuckoos are likewise associated with zany, off-the-wall behavior. So as far as clocks go, not much could be more outlandishly amusing than a little bird popping out of a house-shaped clock, right?

Coo-coo! Coo-coo!


  1. Wolff, HW. Rambles in the Black Forest. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890. pp. 178-179.
  2. Cooke, CW. Automata Old and New. London: Chiswick Press, 1893. p. 16.
  3. Truitt, ER. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. p. 4.
  4. Cooke, CW. pp. 17-24.
  5. Truitt, ER. p. 4.
  6. Treadgold, W. “The Macedonia Renaissance”. Renaissances Before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Treadgold, W (editor). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984. p. 86.
  7. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. p. 58.
  8. Hyman, WB. “‘Mathematical experiments of long silver pipes’: The Early Modern Figure of the Mechanical Bird”. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. Hyman, WB (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. pp. 145-162.
  9. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  10. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  11. Truitt, ER. p. 20.
  12. Truitt, ER. pp. 122-124.
  13. Hyman, WB. p. 151.
  14. Cooke, CW. pp. 60, 64-68.
  15. “The Elephant Clock”, Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection:
  16. Cooke, CW. pp. 52-54.
  17. Wolff, HW. pp. 179.
  18. Harrison, J. “Old Bird Boy”. In Search of Small Gods. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. p. 56.
  19. Lutwack, L. p. 24.

When Two Worlds Collide

geese at airport

Birds have dominated Earth’s airy domain for eons. We are the newcomers, having relied on them for inspiration and insights into our own species’ dreams of flight. Without birds, there would have been no ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus, no model for Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine (1), and no example for Orville and Wilbur Wright to study when developing their airplanes (2).

Unfortunately, as human reach has expanded towards the sky, so have the number of collisions with our feathered neighbors. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than 140,000 bird strikes with civil aircraft have occurred since 1990, and the number of hits are increasing annually (3). Several factors may be resulting in the upward trend of incidents. For starters, wildlife protection measures are working to safeguard more birds, which in turn accounts for more birds in the air (4, 5). The number of aircraft also continues to increase, while advances in quieter aircraft technology may be making the birds more susceptible targets (6). One, too, must consider the improvements in reporting such strikes over the past few decades (7, 8).

Greater Awareness of the Damaging Potential

Bird strikes pose serious problems for all parties concerned. They result in almost certain death to the feathered animal thrust against the plane’s hull or pulled into its engine. For human passengers, the results can range from minor or no aircraft damage to a downed flight and fatalities, though the latter is rare. The FAA-co-sponsored Bird Strike Committee USA indicates that since 1960, such impact events have been responsible for more than 60 “major accidents” in the United States and over 260 fatalities (9). Also, commercial aircraft damage (from minor to catastrophic) now exceeds globally $1.2 billion per year for the airline industry (10).

Of course, the anniversary of the most famous incident involving a bird strike is quickly approaching, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson.” On the afternoon of January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after departing from New York City’s La Guardia Airport. Damage to the Airbus A320’s twin engines, both located under the aircraft’s wings, forced the plane to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Remarkably, thanks to the heroics of pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, no one died (11). The geese, of course, were not so lucky.

Identifying Problems and Providing Solutions

Although bird strikes are not new—the Wright Brothers reportedly had their own incident (12)—the “Miracle on the Hudson” has put a spotlight on the issue, particularly on the role large birds such as Canada geese play. The concern is understandable, though smaller avian species can be problematic. For instance, of all bird species in the United States, the mourning dove resulted in the highest reports of aircraft bird strikes throughout the 1990 – 2013 period. But of those occurrences, just 3% involved any damage (13). Fortunately, impact events with Canada geese and turkey vultures occurred less often than those related to smaller species such as the mourning dove, American kestrel, European starling, and barn swallow, for both of the larger species involved significantly higher incidences of damage (50% and 52% respectively) (14). Nonetheless, a large flock of small birds can still cause serious issues.

Government agencies, aircraft manufacturers, airline industry officials, wildlife organizations, and scientists are continuing their work to prevent bird strike incidents. For instance, airports and the areas surrounding them are monitored so that landscapes and structures do not become breeding grounds or gathering spots for migrating birds. In some cases the birds have to be driven out, using specially trained dogs or falcons. Occasionally, fowl need to be forcefully removed from the premises and exterminated. Less intrusive means are fortunately at our disposal, too. Radar designed to detect birds is becoming increasingly available, and is being used for improved navigation (15, 16, 17, 18). The ideal approach is one that ensures the safe coexistence of both birds and humans in the skies with minimal inconvenience to either.


  1. Stimson, R., “Da Vinci’s Aerodynamics,” The Wright Stories:
  2. Stimson, R.
  3. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths,” Bird Strike Committee USA:
  4. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths,” Bird Strike Committee USA.
  5. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.) “What is a bird strike? How can we keep planes safe from them in the future?”, 1/15/2009. Scientific American:
  6. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  7. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  8. United States Federal Aviation Administration. “Fact Sheet – The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program,” 4/9/2014. FAA:
  9. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths,” Bird Strike Committee USA.
  10. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths,” Bird Strike Committee USA.
  11. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  12. Stimson, R. “Bird Strikes,” The Wright Stories:
  13. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J. “Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990 – 2013,” Federal Aviation Administration National Wildlife Strike Database Serial Report Number 20, Washington, D.C.: FAA & USDA, July 2014. p. 59.
  14. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J.
  15. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths,” Bird Strike Committee USA
  16. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.),
  17. United States Federal Aviation Administration. “Fact Sheet – The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program”.
  18. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J.