Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yesterday morning was mostly cloudy but very warm and humid. I felt as if I’d stepped into a hothouse when I walked out the door and my glasses fogged completely. There was very little breeze, and few bird songs or calls. Very quiet.

A couple of American Robins squeaked and squabbled in the front yard. An Eastern Bluebird muttered a few blurry notes. The tireless Summer Tanager sang from an oak down the street – one of very few birdsongs.

The hollow, echoing coowp calls of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo – from far in the distance – almost sounded like underwater sounds moving through the dense, steamy foliage of the woods. After several of these one-syllable calls, the Cuckoo gave a full dry long call, a series of short, rapid ka-ka-ka-kas, ending in a long, drawn-out cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo is one of the most characteristic birds of a southern woodland in summer. Exotic in both appearance and voice, it eats caterpillars and stays mostly in the forest canopy, hidden among the leaves. Slightly larger than a Blue Jay, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is much more slender, smooth and sleek, with an elegant shape, a creamy-white breast and throat, dark brown back and head, reddish-brown wing edges, a long, down-curved yellow bill, and a spectacular long black tail with large white spots.

Although Yellow-billed Cuckoos are still considered common in the Southeast, its populations are declining dramatically, mostly due to habitat loss and degradation. Here in the woods around our neighborhood this summer, for the first time, I’ve rarely heard a Cuckoo’s call. In previous years, this jungle-like call has been a signature part of most summer days, one of the sounds that makes these woods what they are. So I miss it – the sound and the occasional glimpse of the long black and white tail and the bird, screened among the leaves up high in a tulip poplar tree or an oak, with sunshine filtering through, a sight that always feels like a glimpse into a secret part of woodland life. But it’s part of a woodland community that’s changing steadily here, as in other places, too.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo is also sometimes called a “Raincrow,” because some people say it calls more frequently on cloudy days – and this morning it was cloudy when I heard it, though unfortunately, no rain ever came.


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