Blue Water Healthy Living Archives

The Ambiguous Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Photo credit: William McHale

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus

By Tom Dennis

Now before you think I’m well typecast because I once played the catatonic character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; I must assure you that Cuckoos are for real.  In fact there are five cuckoo species that have been sighted in North America with two species quite common in Michigan.  They may take some effort to locate since they aren’t typically found in your back yard, unless you live on the border of a large, wild woodlot.  Cuckoos sound and look nothing like their namesake clock that was popular when some of us were children but they are a highly important creature at this time in natural history.  Let’s take a look at the Yellow-billed Cuckoo species and learn where and how they can be found locally.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a medium-sized bird that is roughly the size and shape of a Brown Thrasher.  They have gray-brown upperparts with cinnamon-colored primary wing feathers (the trailing edge of the wing), white undersides, yellow eye ring, and the bill is, you guessed it, black with a yellow lower mandible.  The long tail has white spots that show as white on gray-brown stripes when perching.  The less common Black-billed Cuckoo differs with a solid black bill, red eye ring, solid brown wings, and smaller white tail spots.  They average 12 inches in length with a 16 inch wingspan and weigh in at just under 4 ounces.  The song is a harsh, rattling “ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kowp” and they also have a “coo” call that is repeated several times, not at all like the couplet rhythm of the clocks .

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This bird has tremendous range and is found throughout North America, and in many Central American and Caribbean locations.  There are also vagrant populations in parts of Europe, Northern Africa, and the UK.  The global population is estimated at 9.2 million individual birds.  They are migratory birds that are found in most of the United States only during the summer breeding season (except for extreme southwestern Arizona).  They winter from Mexico to Central America, and the Caribbean.  The preferred habitat is moist woods and thickets, overgrown pastures, and orchards and they have an affinity for willows.  The nest is a flimsy saucer of twigs built in bushes or small saplings.  The monogamous parents lay one to five light blue green to yellow green eggs that are incubated by both sexes.  Cuckoos occasionally lay their eggs in another cuckoo’s nest and rarely in the nest of other bird species.  They are not considered to be serious brood parasites.    

Food choices are the feature that makes Yellow-billed Cuckoos very beneficial to us.  They eat mainly insects, foraging in dense shrubs and trees and also catch their prey in flight.  They have a strong preference for tent caterpillars, cicadas, and gypsy moth caterpillars and they sometimes congregate near outbreaks of these exotic and devastating pests.  They will also eat berries and can be found enjoying Mulberries from mid-to-late summer.  

Look for Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the Port Huron State Game area or anywhere locally where woods and water meet in a natural state.  They are common along much of the Black River, Mill Creek, and other local wetland woods.  A unique and interesting fact: on day six or seven after hatching, the feathers emerge from their sheaths and the nestlings then become fully feathered in two hours.  I close by stating…a group of cuckoos are collectively known as an “asylum” of cuckoos!

If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to contact Blue Water Audubon.  For information on future meetings or for general information, please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us. 

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.

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