Yellow-billed Cuckoo

As we sat on our screened porch early yesterday evening, the hot, sunny, drowsy quiet was suddenly broken by a hollow-sounding burst of notes that rose to a crescendo and cascaded down – ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kaw, kaw, kaawwwp, kaawwwp, kaawwwp. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was giving its knocking, drawn-out call from somewhere up near the top of the oaks that shade the porch. 

Having Yellow-billed Cuckoos around our yard this summer has been one of the season’s best surprises. We hear their calls several times a day, though we rarely see one. They mostly stay hidden in the highest part of the trees. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo looks as exotic as it sounds, a large songbird with a slender, graceful form, a long tail, and a prominent, down-curving yellow bill. It’s exquisitely patterned, with a taupe-brown head, back and wings, orange-brown edges in the wings, clean white throat and breast, and a long tail with spectacular big white spots on the underside. It’s always amazing to see one from below, emerging like a jungle bird from the high, dense green leaves of the oaks. And even just to hear one call and to know that they’re around is a joy. Not fluttery birds, they move deliberately through the leaves, searching for caterpillars, and often staying in one spot for several moments. They also eat cicadas, katydids, beetles, and other insects and spiders.

Caterpillars are said to be the primary food of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, so their presence here seems like encouraging evidence that maybe there are more butterflies and moths around than there seem to be. I have been very much aware for the past few years of a sudden and dramatic drop in the abundance of butterflies and moths that we see here. In past years for as long as I can remember, it would have been common for us to see dozens, even hundreds of moths around our windows on summer nights. Last year and this year there are almost none. A very few. One here. one there. The change is stunning. There also has been a very noticeable drop in the number and variety of butterflies. 

And yet – we have Yellow-billed Cuckoos. A hopeful sign.

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