Yellow-billed Cuckoo

At seven o’clock this morning, still more dark than light, two Barred Owls began to hoot from somewhere not far away from my open bedroom windows. They hooted three or four times, back and forth, who-cooks-for-you and shorter hoo-owwhoo-oww, and then there was a loud, piercing scream, followed by another piercing scream that kind of melted into a partial hoot. After that the owls fell silent and must have flown away. 

About an hour later, I stepped out onto our front porch into a clear, chilly day. The sun was just up, with pale traces of pink clouds still lingering in a soft blue sky. The yard seemed mostly quiet, but there was a rustle in the bushes here and there and some small birds high in the trees. A Brown Thrasher flew out of some shrubs to the rim of the birdbath, sat there for a moment, then fled to the cover of the big azalea bushes. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-whee, and emerged on top of the spiny mahonias. A Pine Warbler trilled its song from the wooded edge of the yard. An Eastern Phoebe sang from a neighbor’s yard. An Eastern Bluebird flew into the top of a pecan tree, calling a soft, blurry call, and sat with its rosy breast facing the sun. A chipmunk ran out of cover onto the sidewalk – and froze there for three or four minutes before it finally dived into a hole beneath a big rock. 

In a tall water oak next to the corner of our house a long, slender bird sat quietly in the shadows of a low branch. Though it was half-hidden by leaves and blurry light, its size and elegant lines and striking colors were unmistakable – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an exotic bird in every way. Taupe-brown back and head, creamy-white throat and breast, with a long yellow bill, and a cinnamon tinge in the wings. 

When it flew to another nearby oak, I was surprised to see the Cuckoo fly up as if it were hawking an insect from the air. It flew into the leaves on the tree in a rather awkward-looking way, and then it dropped to a low branch, where it sat and ate a long, wiggling caterpillar. Over the next few minutes I watched it do this several times. Each time it flew up as if hawking an insect from the air, flapping its wings and rustling into the dry leaves on the tree as it snatched a caterpillar from a leaf surface. Then it sat on a branch to eat – I could see the caterpillars as it ate them, one by one. 

As it ate, it was often in full, very clear view so I could see it from several angles, admiring especially the soft brown of its back and head, and the clean line of contrast with creamy-white on throat and breast. Its most showy characteristic though – a long black tail with big white spots – was too much in the shadows to ever show up well. I could make out the spots, but they looked muted. Once it paused to scratch its head with a foot. 

This water oak apparently had a lot of caterpillars – maybe an infestation of webworm caterpillars. I don’t know for sure. The Cuckoo stayed for 10-15 minutes, repeatedly flying up, rustling the leaves, and capturing a caterpillar from a leaf, then settling on a branch to eat. 

We were lucky enough to hear the hollow, percussive calls of Yellow-billed Cuckoos in trees around our yard and nearby woods frequently this summer, though it seemed to me there were fewer than we’ve found in previous years. The one I watched this morning would have been on its way in migration. Yellow-billed Cuckoos spend the summer in a large area of North America and migrate to South America for the winter.

Unfortunately, Birds of the Worldnotes that “the future of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is uncertain. Populations are declining precipitously throughout its distribution.” The cause seems mostly to be habitat loss.

*Hughes, J. M. (2020). Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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