For the Birds Radio Program: Black-billed Cuckoo

Original Air Date: July 27, 1988

Army worms are another problem this year, but cuckoos are doing their best to solve that one.

Duration: 3′43″


(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo)

As if the drought isn’t hard enough for trees to bear this year, we’re also in the beginning stages of an invasion of army worms. Fortunately, there are two birds that specialize in eating army worms–the Black-billed and the Yellow-billed Cuckoos. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is hardly ever found as far North as our listening area, although it is pretty regular down in tropical Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin. But the Black- billed Cuckoo is a regular breeder in the Northland. Most years its uncommon, but its numbers swell during years when tent caterpillars or army worms proliferate. So this year I’ve fielded a lot of questions about this bird.

Our cuckoos are related to the European Cuckoo, which is famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other species. It was the European species that inspired Ogden Nash to write,

Cuckoos lead Bohemian lives,
They fail as husbands and as wives,
Therefore they cynically disparage
Everybody else’s marriage.

Our American cuckoos show their relationship to the European Cuckoo by occasionally laying their eggs in other nests, but they usually make their own nest and take care of their own babies. This is fortunate not only because brood parasitism offends the moral sensibilities of people, but also because our American cuckoos lack the special adaptations of their European relative, and their babies don’t have much of a chance surviving in the nests of other birds.

The European cuckoo, which is found in the Black Forest of Germany, has a two-noted song which inspired the cuckoo clock. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which is often called the rain crow because it calls just before and during rain storms, has a long, gutteral call.

(Recording of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo)

The Black-billed Cuckoo’s call is usually more of a monotone coo coo coo, though it can also make a call similar to the Yellow-billed’s.

(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo)

Cuckoos are shy birds, which usually hide in foliage and are hard to see, but they are very attractive. They’re slender, with very long, rounded tails, a pure white underside, and a brownish back. The Black-billed Cuckoo has red eye rings which are striking when you see the bird at close range. It’s not all that difficult to see one, if you’re patient and search the branches where a cuckoo is calling. But they hold still and often sit parallel to the branch they’re on, so it is a trick to spot one. Most cuckoos are seen in flight, as their long, round tail gives away their identity.

Cuckoos are not considered song birds, in part because they have zygodactylous feet. Robins and other song birds have three toes in front and one back toe, but cuckoos, like many Disney birds, have two toes in front and two behind. This trait also indicates a close relationship to another North American bird, the Roadrunner, which is in the cuckoo family although it doesn’t look anything like a cuckoo. The only roadrunners you’re likely to see in the Northland are on television and say MeBeep, but the roadrunners in the Southwest go

(Recording of a Greater Roadrunner)