The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Cuckoos are Back in Our Neighborhood
Ro Wauer, April 25, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

The arrival of our nesting yellow-billed cuckoos is a little earlier than usual this year. But a couple of these very vociferous birds have been calling in my neighborhood since before the middle of the April. They are one of our last breeding bird to arrive each spring, but their arrival is well marked by their distinct song, a strange guttural sound that starts fast and slows at the end, like "kalala-kow-kow-kowp-kowp-kowp." Not the sweetest song out there, but welcome nevertheless.

Yellow-billed cuckoos, unlike most of the spring arrivals, are not classified as a songbird, one of the perching birds like warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes. Cuckoos on the other hand are closely related to roadrunners and groove-billed anis in the avian family Cuclidae. Perhaps the most famous of all the cuckoos is the European cuckoo that sings the typical "coo-koo" song, after which the cuckoo clock was developed. That bird, along with several other European and African cuckoos, is a nest parasite, like our cowbirds. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and the foster parents raise the young cuckoos.

North America has only three true cuckoos, the yellow-billed cuckoo that nests throughout North America, expect for most of the northwestern quarter, and the black-billed cuckoo that nests throughout the northeastern portion of North America; there are no known nesting records in Texas. Black-billed cuckoos do migrate through Texas, however, although they never are commonplace. The third cuckoo, the mangrove cuckoo, occurs only in south Florida, although there have been a handful of records in Texas. The other North American cuckoo family member is the roadrunner, resident in all of Texas, except along some portions of the upper coast. They all have a somewhat similar song, a slow and guttural caw notes.

Yellow-billed cuckoos are secretive birds, usually remaining concealed in the foliage of the taller trees. They do on occasion fly from one tree to another, often crossing a roadway or trail. Then is when they are most likely to be observed. When landing, they usually remain still long enough to get a good look. They are so unlike the ground cuckoo or roadrunner. Yellow-bills are long, thin birds about 12 inches in length. They possess a cinnamon back and cap, orange eyerings, gray underparts, a long yellow and black bill, and a long black tail with large white spots on the underside. In flight, the upperside of the wings often show reddish flight feathers.

Many folks know our yellow-billed cuckoo best by the name "rain crow," due to its habit of calling frequently on cloudy days or just prior to rain. Its taxonomic name is Coccyzus americanus; Coccyzus is Latin for "to cry cuckoo," referring to the birds' strange song. It also is know for its habit of consuming large quantities of caterpillars, some of which are injurious insect pests. It isn't an exception to find a yellow-billed cuckoo tearing apart tent caterpillar webs to capture the caterpillars. It also feeds on a wide variety of beetles, grasshoppers, ants, wasps, flies, and crickets we well as various fruits such as wild grapes and mulberries. One can't help but wonder if it earlier than normal arrival this year might reflect the greater than normal caterpillar populations in our oak trees.

Although there are a few records of yellow-billed cuckoos practicing nest-parasitism, like they're European and African cousins, that behavior is extremely rare for this species. It appears that our cuckoo is beneficial not just to the nature-lover but to the farmer and rancher as well.


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