Elusive is the word to describe the black-billed cuckoo. Cuckoos are brownish-gray birds, which helps them hide in overgrown tree rows. They are true skulkers, and they are often overlooked – but not unheard. The cuckoo is best known for its call, the staccato series of “cu” notes that give the bird its name. I heard cuckoos early Wednesday – a pair, I think – one on either side of our yard.
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Cuckoos calling are a sure sign of summer. They are late migrants, arriving in June after trees are fully in leaf. They don’t stay long, usually departing by late August. At least that’s the guess, but there is a caveat. Cuckoo calls are part of a territorial and mating ritual. Once that’s passed, cuckoos, like many other species, fall silent. That makes it hard to know if they’re still around.
Cuckoos are not exactly shy birds. I see them moving across the yard from one group of trees to another. They are slim, streamlined birds. In flight, they might be mistaken for mourning doves or even small raptors.
I’ve also encountered cuckoos perching at the edge of the shelterbelt. This seems more common in the evening. The habit has led some observers to suggest that cuckoos might be more active at night. Of course, that would make it even harder to find one.
Cuckoos have been thought of as uncommon, but Tim Driscoll’s first appraisal of the food habits of the local peregrine falcons found a lot of cuckoos. Local birders were surprised that so many of the birds were in the area.
The birds have been consistent at our place west of Gilby, N.D., about 30 miles northwest of Grand Forks. We’ve had cuckoos every year since we moved to the property after the Flood of 1997.
The black bill of this species name is determinative. There is another, more common cuckoo species, the yellow-billed cuckoo. This is a bird of the southeastern United States. Its range barely extends into North Dakota’s southeastern corner. Black-billed cuckoos occur as far north as central Manitoba and as far west as Alberta.
The black-billed cuckoo is grayish brown on the upper parts. The throat, breast and belly are white.
Cuckoo numbers depend on the population of caterpillars, the bird’s main food. The search for caterpillars explains much of their behavior, from late migration to extreme secrecy in their nesting habits.
Near dependence on caterpillars has led to a decline in cuckoo populations since modern agriculture is more effective at eliminating caterpillars than the cuckoos themselves. Still, there are reports of cuckoos stripping caterpillars from infested trees, leaving not a single insect behind.
The North American cuckoos have European relatives that are the source of much folklore – and the inspiration for cuckoo clocks. The American birds are not brood parasites like Old World cuckoos. They build their own nests and care for their own young.
Black-billed cuckoos show some nesting anomalies. Incubation is brief, only 11 days, and young cuckoos are able to hold themselves upright only a few hours after hatching, Janie N. Hanson, a Canadian ornithologist, reports in her monograph on the species in the “Birds of North America” series.
Here’s her description of young cuckoos: “They mature rapidly, and at six days of age resemble porcupines with their long, pointed feather sheath. Just prior to the young leaving the nest on the following day, the sheaths burst, and the chick becomes fully feathered, a process once likened to the commotion in a popcorn popper.
“The agile young cuckoos are capable of hopping and climbing rapidly through the vegetation. When threatened they assume a bizarre defensive posture – necks outstretched, bills pointed straight up, eyes wide open. ...”
Alas for me, I’ve never found a cuckoo nest, so I’ve never seen this behavior – but it’s nice to know it’s going on in my tree patch.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.