Two Yellow-billed Cuckoos

Early this morning, not long after sunrise, the drooping, dark-green leaves on a low-hanging branch of a persimmon tree rustled and out came a sleek brown head, bright eye and long, down-curved yellow bill, and a creamy white throat and neck and breast – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In its bill it held a very big fat dark caterpillar, which it slowly ate.

The Cuckoo was only a few feet away from where I stood on the side of a road, and almost at eye level, and it stayed in view, moving around, so close I could see it unusually well  – the dark top of the yellow bill, the pale yellow ring around the dark eye, the soft suede-brown color of the plumage on the back and head, with deep-reddish tinges in the wings, and the long startling tail with big white spots against black, on the under side.

I watched for two or three minutes as it ate the caterpillar and searched the branches and leaves for more, before realizing that there was also a second Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the same tree. For a couple of minutes both were in full view, though just inside the branches of the persimmon tree – which is heavy with fruit – and shaded by its leaves. Both were quiet.

On several days earlier in August I’ve heard the dry, exotic call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo from somewhere deep in the woods, but this is the first time this year I’ve seen one – and to see them so close and so clear was memorable. Especially that first surprising view as it emerged from the leaves.

The dramatic call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is one of the most characteristic sounds of a southern woodland in summer, though the birds are secretive and not often seen, and their presence to me is a vivid example of the diversity of wildlife that still depends on these struggling second-growth woodlands for habitat.

It’s also encouraging that they still can be found here, because unfortunately, populations of Yellow-billed Cuckoos are declining rapidly,* most likely because of fragmentation and loss of the habitat they prefer – open woodlands near creeks or rivers, with clearings and low, dense shrubs and other vegetation. This kind of habitat here is steadily disappearing in the path of urban and suburban development.

*Janice M. Hughes. 1999. Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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