For the Birds Radio Program: Black-billed Cuckoo

Original Air Date: June 19, 1987

Cuckoos know the best way to deal with army worms. (3:26)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo).

Army worms are invading the Northland this year. Although I try to keep an open mind about all creatures great and small, from Pileated Woodpeckers to Tammy Faye Bakker, it’s hard to say anything nice about an army worm. These objectionable little creatures begin their lives as eggs, in late summer. From the start they seem to find security in numbers–a single twig will hold a cluster of 150 to 400 eggs. The following spring they hatch into dark, hairy caterpillars, which munch the leaves as they crawl along, en masse, throughout their arboreal birthplace. Once one tree is defoliated, they move on to another, and another. After about three weeks, they pupate, turning into dull brown moths, which each lay hundreds of eggs to start a whole new cycle. Their favorites are fruit trees and popples, or aspens. Fortunately, most trees have enough energy stored to survive a year with even severe army worm damage. But in the meantime the trees look pitiful.

Most people find army worms repulsive. If you look at one closely, you may notice its striking metallic dark blue back, with the row of keyhole-shaped spots. But most people would prefer to entrust their life savings to a deposed fundamentalist preacher than come that close to an army worm. Even most insect-eating birds pass on them. One of the few birds which does eat them is the Black-billed Cuckoo.

The cuckoo didn’t get its name for its fondness for hairy caterpillars, although its eating habits do add a level of meaning to the name.

(Recording of a cuckoo clock).

Actually the cuckoo takes its name from its call–it seems to say cucucu, over and over again.

(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo).

The black-billed cuckoo is secretive and usually stays hidden in foliage. It’s easy to identify in flight by its tail, which is just about as long as its body. It’s a pretty bird, with a pure white underside and a solid brown back. When perched, the cuckoo’s extremely long tail and ruby red eye ring are its most striking features. A more subtle feature is on its feet–it has two front toes and two rear toes– one reason ornithologists don’t classify it as a songbird. They place it in the Roadrunner family.

European Cuckoos are famous for laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. Our Black-billed Cuckoo shows a trace of this behavior, but usually builds a nest and takes care of its eggs and young.

Black-billed Cuckoos are sometimes called rain crows because they sing throughout hot, humid days, and especially just before a rainfall. This year they’re around in good numbers because of the army worms. So even a blight as repulsive as a tent caterpillar outbreak does have its bright side.

(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo).

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”