5/27 Invasion of the Cuckoos

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For the past few weeks, neotropical migrants have moved through the forest in waves. They pause for a few days of food and rest, then one fine night they’re up and out. By morning a host of new arrivals is busily feeding in the same trees. A group of hungry Yellow billed Cuckoos arrived last week, allowing me the chance to view up close these usually furtive birds.

In birder parlance, an invasion is an unusually large wave of migrants, usually clustered in one region. The number of cuckoos in this forest certainly didn’t meet that criteria, yet their size and feeding behavior made them quite noticeable. The resident breeding birds noticed too. Judging by the many chases I saw, the robins and cardinals were feeling a bit threatened by these big, hungry newcomers barging into their territories and eating the bugs they needed for their young.

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Their very active feeding behavior in the days after arrival taught me some things about Yellow-billed Cuckoos. On hot, humid afternoons their distinctive kuk-kuk-kuk-kowp-kowp-kowp-kowp hoot-like call drifts from high in the canopy, but glimpses of the actual bird have been few. They are described as sluggish, shy and furtive.

But these migrating cuckoos were uncautious – gliding from limb to limb, fluttering to the ground to pluck a choice insect, then perching on a low open limb in plain view to eat it and watch for another.

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“Caterpillars top the list of Yellow-Billed Cuckoo prey: individual cuckoos eat thousands of caterpillars per season. On the East coast, periodic outbreaks of tent caterpillars draw cuckoos to the tentlike webs, where they may eat as many as 100 caterpillars at a sitting… They also take advantage of the annual outbreaks of cicadas, katydids, and crickets, and will hop to the ground to chase frogs.  (All About Birds: The Cornell Lab)

Their diet makes cuckoos vulnerable to pesticide use. Yellow-billed populations in the west have been in a serious decline for some time, but won’t be afforded protection due to a debate over whether it’s a true subspecies of the more common eastern bird.

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These are incredibly handsome birds, a real treat to see at close (binocular) range. Long, pointed wings and tail, big dark eyes, a warm cinnamon hue in their wing feathers – and that amazing beak. Cuckoos can be mistaken for robins if you only see their back. But a front view reveals the white breast and unique white ovals in the under-tail feathers.

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A friend of mine saw a Yellow-billed Cuckoo last evening at the edge of the forest, so some of the migrants are still around. The Black-billed Cuckoo, a much rarer bird whose populations are declining, has also been seen here.

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I’ve started hearing their calls, which means our resident birds are beginning to nest. It was once believed their calls presaged rain, hence the common name “rain crow”. Likely all I will get of cuckoos for another season is that distant hooting on a hot afternoon – for me it’s the voice of summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “5/27 Invasion of the Cuckoos

  1. shoreacres

    I had no idea that we have cuckoos. Probably because of my dose of romantic British poetry in high school, I’ve assumed they were strictly a European bird.

    However! I read this on the Cornell site: “In summer, start by looking in areas of deciduous forest for infestations of tent caterpillars, as well as outbreaks of cicadas or other large arthropods.” I was in a deciduous forest last weekend, and saw several large trees with tent caterpillars, and the cicadas were starting to trill. And when I listened to the calls on the Cornell site, I was astonished. I think I’ve heard them, and thought they were woodpeckers. I think I need to make another visit!

    An interesting side note: the woods are a separate part of our San Bernard refuge. Our newly-discovered largest oak in Texas is back there — that’s why I’d gone. Turns out it’s quite a wild place: bottomlands with palmettos, oaks, sloughs, and a whole variety of interesting unknowns. After I managed a way of repelling the mosquitos, ticks, no-see-ums and such, it was quite an adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      Cuckoos are definitely heard more than they are seen! Just read in the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas that YB Cuckoos reach their maximum abundance in Texas and Oklahoma. The refuge sounds like a cool place, and likely has lots of Cuckoo habitat.

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    1. oneforestfragment

      If it’s any consolation I have never had such excellent views of Cuckoos before. I’ve only known they were around by hearing their calls. Fortunately I just bought a better camera in anticipation of spring migration. I don’t bird with binoculars anymore, only the camera.

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  2. Joseph Jannuzzi

    Used to live in Maryland and worked in Frederick MD and I was interested in Cuckoos because you would see them in the city looking for caterpillars in the streamside plantings in a linear park in the middle of the town. Unfortunately, the state built a large office building with mirror windows which functions as a massive bird killer; I mean literally hundreds of dead birds in a week. I’d go outside on lunch breaks and count the bodies, even tried to contact state wildlife and Audubon just to see if they could mitigate the death toll. The body count included robins, cardinals and lots of yellow-billed cuckoos. Of course I was mocked and laughed at by the people I called in the state government and Audubon never returned my calls.
    I did some observing on my own to better understand the phenomena and my observations were that many of the death strikes into the building involved sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks making attempts to ensnare birds and the panicked birds striking the building. It was a disturbing sight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oneforestfragment

      Wow, what a sad story! I have heard of mass strikes on glass covered buildings, particularly during migration. Your observations of hawks panicking birds to fly into the glass, which appears to be open space, agrees with my observations. On a smaller scale I have seen the same phenomenon at the large glass windows of the Louisville Nature Center adjacent to this forest.

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