Bird Notes by Dorothy Tompkins – Yellow-billed cuckoo

Coccyzus americanus

More than one resident of Bundoran has noted the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo recently. They have been calling their hollow wooden calls ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp from many sites in the forests or the forest edge. This secretive bird has an unusual breeding pattern, with breeding correlated with an abundant food supply and a very rapid breeding cycle. From egg-laying to fledgling of the young takes only 17 days, and breeding occurs from April well into August. Since they are so vocal at this time one can speculate that the recent rains have brought out their favorite foods: large insects such as katydids, grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets and caterpillars. I did not hear these cuckoos much during the drought.

The yellow-billed cuckoo arrives from its winter stay in Central America in April and breeds through out central and eastern US. It prefers open woodland with clearings and some low dense vegetation, usually with water nearby. It is generally absent from urban areas.

The yellow-billed cuckoo has been called “the rain crow” but its proficiency as a rain predictor has never been shown. This cuckoo is known for its “skulking” behavior; when perched it avoids movement, sits with its back hunched to conceal its white breast and belly and disappears into the foliage when disturbed. It is much more likely to be heard than seen. When spotted, its distinctive tail pattern is quite pretty: the outer feathers (rectrices) are tipped with white giving the appearance of six large white spots on the under surface, The bright rufous wing primaries are a lovely color. The moderately long curved, stout bill is mostly yellow with the upper mandible black.

The yellow-billed cuckoo has declined significantly in the US and used to be common in the west, but has virtually disappeared from those states. This disappearance seems to be due to destruction of riparian habitats from agriculture, flood control and urbanization. The yellow-billed cuckoo, like other cuckoos may lay eggs in other bird’s nests. Most often it is in another yellow-billed cuckoo’s nest. Generally they seem to use their own nest, and the incidence of brood parasitism is not known.

Dorothy Tompkins — Master Naturalist and Bundoran Farm Steward