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Black-billed Cuckoo

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

September 18, 2023

Every now and then I come across a bird that really piques my interest. If you know anything about me from reading this column, you know that I am interested in all wildlife, so if something really piques my interest you know it is a very special bird indeed.

The other day I was intently watching a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I saw the male carrying some nesting material high up into an oak tree, but then I lost it in the thick tangle of leaves. Shortly after that I saw the female grosbeak doing the same thing. Again, I lost sight of it in the leaves. I vowed I would stand there until I got this figured out and find the actual nest. Not just the general location.

Suddenly, I could hear a Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) calling from a short distance away behind me. I noted the calling cuckoo but thought perhaps it was just one passing through the area and I went back to searching for the grosbeak nesting activity. Again, I could hear the cuckoo calling, this time it was from a slightly different location. Again, I went back to looking for the grosbeak nesting activity. About four different times I could hear the Black-billed Cuckoo calling.

The allure of the Black-billed Cuckoo became too much for me and I turned and started hiking over to the general location where I heard the bird the last time. Upon arrival in the area, I could see a single tall American Elm tree standing out in the open with no other trees around it. I used my binoculars to scan the tree’s branches in search for the elusive, Black-billed Cuckoo but I didn’t find it.

Several weeks ago, in the same area I saw and heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I managed to capture a few, not so good, pictures of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. So, I was determined to find this Black-billed Cuckoo and capture some decent images. From directly behind me I could hear the Black-billed Cuckoo calling again. I turned on my heels and marched back knowing that this may take a while to nail down the location of this bird.

I approached a small Green Ash tree that I thought contained the bird and again I could hear the cuckoo calling from my left side about 25 yards away. So again, I headed across the open field to another Green Ash tree and there it was. I was able to set up my longest lens and tripod and capture just 6 images of this magnificent bird before it flew off. I was thrilled.

The Black-billed Cuckoo is a New World species in the Cuculidae family. Its scientific name comes from the Ancient Greek and translates to “call like a Common Cuckoo”. Yep, that’s right, these birds are closely related to the Old-World Cuckoos that gave rise to the sound that comes from a Cuckoo Clock.

The Old-World Cuckoos are well known for laying their eggs in other bird’s nests, allowing the host birds to raise their young. Our New-World Cuckoos don’t practice this kind of reproductive behavior. They build their own nests in which they incubate and raise their own young.

Black-billed Cuckoos eat mainly insects, especially caterpillars but they also eat berries from trees and shrubs. They are one of the few bird species that feed on Tent Caterpillars and the invasive Spongy Moth Caterpillars. Most other birds don’t eat these caterpillars because they are covered with a thick hair-like structures called setae. The Cuckoo is able to regurgitate up the accumulation of setae from their stomach, much in the same way an owl regurgitates up the un-digestible parts of a mouse.

Another very interesting aspect of this bird is their feet. The Black-billed Cuckoo has zygodactylous feet, which means it has two toes pointing forward and two facing backwards, just like an owl or parrot. Most birds have three toes forward and one toe back.

The majority of cuckoos are tropical, but the Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoo migrate up from the tropics into the eastern half of the country in the northern states. And this is why I am very excited to see, hear and ultimately capture a few images of this fabulous bird. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com and www.facebook.com and can be contacted via his website www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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