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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A slender migratory bird species with a brownish plumage, a long tail, and a distinctive yellow bill, and it is commonly found in riparian habitats and wooded areas across North and Central America.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Scientific name: Coccyzus americanus

Widely distributed across eastern North American forests but far less common in the west, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is efficient at taking advantage of an abundant food source such as a caterpillar or cicada outbreak. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s nesting cycle progresses rapidly so young can be produced before the food source diminishes.

Interestingly, the female Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a known nest parasite that sometimes lays her eggs in other cuckoo nests. There are also records of Yellow-billed Cuckoos laying eggs in the nests of eleven other species. Some of these parasitized nests were even successful in raising cuckoo young.

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Description of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo


Yellow billed Cuckoo 2 gl


Yellow billed Cuckoo 3 gl

Photographs © Greg Lavaty

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a relative of the Mangrove and Black-billed Cuckoos, and has a long tail marked below with large white spots, a stout bill that is partially black above and yellow below, brownish upperparts with rufous primaries, and white underparts.


The sexes are similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are similar to adults.


Yellow-billed Cuckoos inhabit woodlands, streamside thickets, and orchards.


Yellow-billed Cuckoos eat insects, especially caterpillars.


Yellow-billed Cuckoos forage slowly within trees and shrubs.


Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., and parts of the southwestern and western U.S. They winter in South America. The population is declining.

Fun Facts

Yellow-billed Cuckoos are rather secretive, and are frequently heard before they are seen.

Tent caterpillar outbreaks provide a feeding bonanza for Yellow-billed Cuckoos.


The song consists of a series of nasal calls sounding like “ka ka ka ka ka kawlp, kawlp, kawlp”.

Similar Species

  • Mangrove Cuckoos are buffy below, and have evenly brown primaries and a black face mask. Black-billed Cuckoos have a black bill and much smaller white tail spots.


The Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s nest is a well concealed, loose stick platform placed in a tree.

Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: Bluish-green.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 10 days, and leave the nest in about another 8 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


The yellow-billed cuckoo, with its western subspecies, covers practically all the United States and some of southern Canada. It is mainly a bird of the Austral Zone, being much commoner in the Southern States than in the northern portions of its range. In New England it is not so common as the black-billed cuckoo, though in some seasons it seems to be a familiar bird. Originally it was probably a woodland bird, but, like many other species, it has learned to frequent the haunts of man, where it is not molested and where it finds an abundant food supply in our shade trees, orchards, and gardens. Its favorite haunts are still the woodland thickets, where the tree growth is not too heavy, brush-grown lanes, solitary roadsides, dense thickets along small streams, and apple Orchards in rural districts. In dense, heavy woods it is seldom seen.

Nesting: Unlike the European cuckoo, both of our North American species usually build their own nests and rear their own young, though they are very poor nest builders and are often careless about laying in each other’s nests or the nests of other species. Major Bendire (1895) gives the following very good account of the nesting habits of the yellow-billed cuckoo:

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is one of the poorest nest builders known to me, and undoubtedly the slovenly manner in which it constructs its nest causes the contents of many to be accidentally destroyed, and this probably accounts to some extent for the many apparent irregularities in their nesting habits. The nests are shallow, frail platforms, composed of small rootlets, sticks, or twigs, few of these being over 4 or 5 inches in length, and among them a few dry leaves and bits of mosses; rags, etc., are occasionally mixed in, and the surface is lined with dry blossoms of the horse-chestnut and other flowering plants, the inale aments or catkins of oaks, willows, etc., tufts of grasses, One and spruce needles, and mosses of different kinds. These materials are loosely placed on the top of the little platform, which is frequently so small that the extremities of the bird project on both sides, and there is scarcely any depression to keep the eggs from rolling out even in only a moderate windstorm, unless one of the parents sits on the nest, and it is therefore not a rare occurrence to find broken eggs lying Under the trees or bushes in which the nests are placed. Some of these are so slightly built that the eggs can be readily seen through the bottom. An average nest measures about 5 inches in outer diameter by 1 1/2 inches in depth. They are rarely placed over 20 feet from the ground, generally from 4 to 8 feet upon horizontal limbs of oak, beech, gum, dogwood, hawthorn, mulberry, pine, cedar, fir, apple, orange, fig, and other trees. Thick bushes particularly such as are overrun with wild grape and other vines as well as hedgerows, especially those of osage orange are most frequently selected for nesting sites. The nests are ordinarily well concealed by the overhanging and surrounding foliage and while usually shy and timid at other times, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is generally courageous and bold in the defense of its chosen home; the bird on the nest not unfrequently will raise its feathers at right angles from the body and occasionally even fly at the intruder.

Of five Massachusetts nests, on which I have notes, the lowest was only 2 feet above the ground in some bushes, and the highest was 12 feet up in a crotch near the top of an oak sapling in a swampy thicket near a brook. Owen Durfee mentions in his notes a nest 5 feet up in a juniper on the edge of a swamp. The others were at low elevations in thickets along brooks.

A. D. DuBois has sent me his notes on five Illinois nests; one of these was on the end of a branch of an apple tree, 8 feet from the ground, near a country schoolhouse; this nest contained 3 eggs of the cuckoo and a robin’s egg. Another was near the end of a branch in an osage-orange hedge, 10 feet tip; still another was in an isolated clump of -willows, between a field and a pasture, 6 feet from the ground.

But cuckoos do not always nest in such low situations; there are several records of their nesting well up in elm trees. Grant Foreman (1924) tells of a pair that nested on his place in Muskogee, Okla., for one or two years, high up in an elm tree; he says: “The next year after nesting in this inaccessible place, they built ‘ their nest in a little elm tree in the parking, in a low limb overhanging the curb on an asphalt street where hundreds of automobiles were passing every day, and here in this exposed, noisy place they raised a brood of young. This year they built their nest in a little hackberry tree in the parking along the side of my lot; but here also the nest was on a low limb overhanging the curb on a paved street, and the ice wagon stopped every morning directly under this nest, which was so low down that the driver might have put his hand in it.”

George Finlay Simmons (1915) mentions a nest that he found near Houston, Tex., on the horizontal limb of a young pine near the edge, of some woods. He says of it: “The nest was a slight platform about eleven feet Up, through which I could see with ease; it was composed of small pine twigs, about an eighth of an inch in diameter and averaging six or eight inches Ion-, and was much more concave than I had expected. This shallow saucer was neatly, though quite thinly lined with a few pine needles, a small quantity of Spanish moss and several tiny buds.”

George. B. Senneit (1879) says that in the Lower Rio Grande region of Texas “ebony trees near the ranch, mesquites among cactuses, thorny bushes in open chaparral, and open woodland, were favored breeding places.”

Wright and Harper (1913) found a well-made nest in Okefinokee Swamp, in a tupelo tree at the margin of the Suwannee. “It was placed in a cluster of mistletoe on a horizontal branch four feet above the water, and consisted of sticks interwoven with Spanish ‘moss’ (Tfflardsia usneoides).”

Dr. Harry C. Oberholser (1896) gives the measurements of four nests; the average height of the nests was 4 inches, and the greatest outside diameters averaged 7.63 by 6.25 inches.

Both species of North American cuckoos often lay their eggs in each other’s nests. The eggs of the yellow-billed cuckoo have been found several times in nests of the robin and catbird. H. P. Attwater (1892) writes: “In 1884 1 found a Dickeissel’s nest which contained five eggs and one Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s egg. The next year some boys brought me three Black-throated Sparrow’s eggs and one Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s, from the same field, which they said they found all together in one nest.” J. L. Davison (1887) says: “I also found a nest of Merula migratoria, taken possession of by Coccyzus americanus before it was finished, which was filled nearly full of rootlets; and in this condition the Robin laid one egg and the Cuckoo laid two and commenced incubation, when a Mourning Dove (Zenaidura ntacroura) also occupied it and laid two eggs and commenced incubation with the Cuckoo. I found both birds on the nest at the same time, when I secured nest and eggs. The eggs of the Robin and Cuckoo were slightly incubated; those of the Mourning Dove were fresh.”

Bendire (1895) adds the wood thrush, cedar waxwing, and cardinal to the list of birds that have been imposed upon, and says: “Such instances appear to be much rarer, however, than those in which they interlay with each other, and the majority of these may well be due to accident, their own nest having possibly been capsized, and it compelled the bird to deposit its egg elsewhere. Such instances do occur at times with species that can not possibly be char 2 (red with parasitic tendencies.” Marcia B. Clay (1929) thus describes the cuckoo’s method of gathering twigs for her nest:

Flying into an adjacent apple tree containing a considerable quantity of dead material, the Cuckoo landed on a limb, selected a dead twig, and grasping it in her bill bent it back and forth until it snapped from the limb, whereupon she flew with it to her nesting-site in the next tree, arranged this twig and quickly returned for another. As she tagged at a stubborn twig, her back was arched and very long tail curved under or waved about If a twig resisted too well her attack, the bird desisted at once and tried another. Always she worked rapidly with great energy, attacking a twig as soon as she landed in the tree, never carrying more than one twig at a time, holding It squarely at right angles to her bill and flying rapidly with long tail streaming.

The Cuckoo’s concentration in the work, coupled with her indifference to observers, was remarkable. Not once did she descend to the ground for material. Not once did she gather material in the tree in which her nest was located. With two exceptions the twigs were all gathered from the same tree. Working thus off and on for an hour or two at a time, the bird completed the nest. The third night [he Cuckoo was sitting on the nest at dusk, but after two days she deserted.

Eggs: The yellow-billed cuckoo lays ordinarily three or four eggs, sometimes only one and rarely five; as many as Six, seven, or even eight eggs have been found in a nest, but these larger numbers may be the product of more than one female. The eggs vary in shape from elliptical-oval to oval, oftener nearer the former, and about equally rounded at both ends. The shell is smooth, but without gloss. Bendire (1895) says that the “color varies from a uniform Nile blue to pale greenish blue when fresh, fading out in time to a pale greenish yellow.” Eggs that I have examined in collections vary in color from pale glaucous green” to “Pale flilofite green.” The measurements of 53 eggs average 30.4 by 23 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 34.64 by 23.11, 33.53 by 25.40, 27.43 by 22.86, and 29.21 by 20.83 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be about 14 days; it is shared to some extent by both sexes, but is probably performed mainly by the female. The eggs are Sometimes laid on succeeding days, but oftener at more or less infrequent intervals; the young, therefore, frequently hatch at irregular intervals, and young of different ages are often found in the nest.

Snyder and Logier (1931) say of a brood of young that they examined: “The young were quite active when disturbed. They scrambled about the bush, using the wings and bill for climbing. One young which was brought to our camp demonstrated a, remarkable reptile-like behavior. When it was placed on the table and one reached to pick it Up, it erected its somewhat horny plumage and emitted a buzzing hiss like the sound of bees escaping from a tunnel in dry grass. This performance was certainly unbirdlike in all respects. Francis Allen writes to me: “I found a young one in an open field on the ground. I was attracted to the spot by its loud rasping cry. It fluttered along when I approached, but it could not fly from that position, in rather long grass, though wings and tail were pretty well fledged. When I picked it up, it pecked at my finger angrily. It seemed as fierce as a young hawk, and its rasping cry was probably calculated to inspire terror in its enemies. I placed the bird on a bough of a Norway spruce, where it took a characteristic cuckoo attitude and seemed much more at home than on the ground.”

Dr. Lawrence H. 1,Walkinshaw has sent me some notes on the weights and development of young yellow-billed cuckoos. One well-grown” young was weighed for three days in succession before it left the nest, at 6 a. m. each morning. It weighed 28.8 grams the first morning, 31 grams the second, and only 26 grams on the third, August 6. The interesting point is that the loss of weight came with the sudden development of the plumage, of which he says: “When I visited the nest on August 5, at 6 a. in., his feathers resembled the quills of a porcupine, long and bluish, stretched out over his wings and back. At 7 p. in., these quills bad all opened and the bird had taken on the resemblance of an adult cuckoo. Correspondingly, the following morning, lie had lost 5 grams in weight. He left the nest on August 6.”

At another nest a. young bird weighed 25 grams on August 25, 27.6 on the 26th, 32.9 on the 27th, and only 28.9 grams on the 28th; this bird left the nest on August 29, with feathers unsheathed. He says that during the unsheathing process the young bird dressed its feathers continually; “the wings, the tail, the scapulars, the rump, and breast all shared alike, then with the feet he would work about the head and throat. When hungry be would pause and call a low cuk-cuk-cuk-cur-r-r-r-rrr. If the parent did not come soon, these calls increased in number. While feeding, his wings would vibrate rapidly, and after the parent left his call was more of contentment, a short curr, or a cuk-mori,rrr. When excreting, he simply backed up to the edge of the nest.”

Plumages: Bendire, (1895) says: “The young when first hatched are repulsive, black, and greasy-looking creatures, nearly naked, and the sprouting quills only add to their general ugliness.” This is a very good description, and the young birds do not improve much in appearance during the period of early growth. The body is well covered with the long, pointed feather sheaths until the young bird is more than half grown. But the sheaths burst, the juvenal plumage appears, and the young bird is well feathered before the time comes to leave the nest.

Dr. A. H. Cordier (1923) describes this process very well as follows:
At the end of seven days the young Cuckoo resembled a porcupine more than a bird. I now cut the limb holding the nest and brought it to the ground. Within three feet of it I then put up the umbrella tent that I might at close range observe minutely the rapid transition of the porcupine-looking object into a fully feathered, beautiful Rain Crow. * * *

The first picture was made at nine o’clock. * * * This shows the young by the unhatched egg; the horny, sheathed feathers were fully two inches long, making the bird look like a porcupine. About ten-thirty the sheaths began to burst, and with each split a fully formed feather was liberated. This process took place with such rapidity that it reminded me of the commotion In a corn popper or a rapidly blooming flower. All the while I was within three feet of the bird, and could see every new feather, as it blossomed, so to speak.

At three p. m., six hours after the first picture was taken, I made another photograph, showing this same bird in the full plumage of a Cuckoo, except the long tail.

In this first plumage the young cuckoo looks very much like the adult, perhaps slightly paler above and with a slight wash of tawny or pale buff on the throat and breast; but the tail is quite different, lacking the conspicuous black and white markings so prominent on the sides of the adult tail; in the young bird the dark spaces in the tail are not black, but dark gray or lighter gray, variable in different individuals or in different feathers in the same individual; the light spaces are not so sharply defined as in the adult and are grayish white instead of pure white.

The juvenal body plumage appears to be molted in fall, from August to October; but the juvenal wings and tail are worn through the first winter at least; I have not been able to detect this plumage in spring birds, so I suppose that a more or less complete molt occurs while the birds are in their winter homes, producing a practically adult plumage before they return in the spring. Adults have a complete molt between July and October, and possibly a more or less complete molt in spring before they arrive here, but winter specimens to show it are lacking.

Food: Cuckoos are among the most useful of our birds, mainly because of their fondness for caterpillars, which are some of our most injurious insect pests and which constitute the principal food of these birds during their seasons of abundance. Edward H. Forbush (1907) writes:

The Cuckoos are of the greatest service to the farmer, by reason of their well-known foudness for caterpillars, particularly the hairy species. No caterpillars are safe from the Cuckoo. It does not matter how hairy or spiny they are, or how well they may be protected by webs. Often the stomach of the Cuckoo will be found filled with a felted mass of caterpillar hairs, and sometimes its intestines are pierced by the spines of the noxious caterpillars that It has swallowed. Wherever caterpillar outbreaks occur we hear the calls of the Cuckoos. There they stay; there they bring their newly fledged young; and the number of caterpillars they eat is incredible. Professor Beal states that two thousaud, seven hundred and seventy-one caterpillars were found in the stomachs of one hundred and twenty-one Cuckoos-an average of more than twenty-one each. Dr. Otto Lugger found several hundred small hairy caterpillars in the stomach of a single bird. The poisonous, spined caterpillars of the io moth, the almost equally disagreeable caterpillars of the brown-tail moth, and the spiny elm caterpillar, are eaten with avidity.

He says elsewhere (1927) :

When, in time, the inside of the bird’s stomach becomes so felted with a mass of hairs and spines that it obstructs digestion, the bird can shed the entire stomach-lining, meanwhile growing, a new one. * * * Mr. Mosher, a competent observer, watched a Yellow-billed Cuckoo eat 41 gypsy caterpillars in fifteen minutes, and later he saw another consume 47 forest tent caterpillars in six minutes. * * * Lit. Anios W. Butler [181971 says that he has known these Cuckoos to destroy every tent caterpillar in a badly infested orchard and tear tip all the nests in half a day. This species frequently feeds on or near the ground, and there gots in enormous number of locusts and other pests. In summer and autumn it feeds to some extent on small wild fruits, such as the raspberry, blackberry and wild grape.

The fall webworm is a destructive pest oil certain trees, but few birds will eat it. Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1902) noted that, on a Maryland farm, “a pair of yellow-billed cuckoos continually extracted them from the webs. The destruction of this insect is an habitual practice with the cuckoo. In a single stomach of the species examined by Professor Beal there were 325 of the larve.”

Henry C. Denslow writes to me, that he fed many hairy caterpillars to a cuckoo that he had in captivity, and says: “Many of these this bird sheared the hairs from by slowly moving them from end to end through its beak by a side-shifting motion of the mandibles. The removed hairs collected in a little bunch and, at the end of the caterpillar, fell to the floor. Most of the liairs were thus shorn from these caterpillars. Other caterpillars were swallowed entire, as I gave them to him, hairs and all.”

Walter B. Barrows (1912) says that this cuckoo feeds freely on elderberries and mulberries and that, “large, quantities of beetles and bugs also are constaned, and both species of cuckoo seem to be very fond of grasshoppers, eating especially such forms as frequent shrubbery and trees, among these the destrudixe tree crickets (Occanthus). Ten specimens examined by Professor Aughey, in Nebraska, contained 416 locusts and grasshoppers, and 152 other insects.”

Audubon (1842) writes: “In autumnn they eat many grapes, and 1 have seen them supporting themselves by a momentlary motion of their wings opposite a bunch, as if selecting the ripest, when they would seize it and return to a branch, repeating their visits in this manner until satiated.”

In addition to those mentioned above, yellow-billed cuckoos have been known to eat many other insects, such as armyworms, ants, wasps, flies, and dragonflies. Several of the earlier ornithologists accused this cuckoo of eating the eggs of other small birds and produced some evidence of the bad habit, but some modern observers seem to think that they do very little, if any, nest robbing. C. J. Maynard (1896) writes:

This species in company with the former [black-billed cuckoo] are the terror of other small birds during the nesting season for they will constantly rob their nests. I have frequently seen a Cuckoo enter a thicket in which a Robin or a Cut Bird had built a home and in a moment the air would resound with the shrill cries of distress given by the parents, causing all the small birds In the immediate vicinity to rush to the spot and as each joins in the outcry, the noise produced is apparently enough to frighten away a bolder bird than a Cuckoo.

But in spite of all this din, the glossy thief nearly always succeeds in accomplishing his purpose and emerges from the thicket. carrying an egg impaled on his beak. He does not always escape unscathed, however, for he Is pursued by a motley crowd consisting of Robins, Cat Birds, Thrushes, Warblers, etc. that follow him closely, harassing him on all sides, and some of the more courageous will even assault him with blows from their beaks so that he frequently leaves some of his feathers floating in the wind behind him. As the long and broad tail of the Cuckoo is a prominent object and as it is also a portion of the bird which its enemies can seize with comparative safety to themselves, this member often suffers in these forays, in so much, that by the middle of summer, it is quite difficult to find a Cuckoo of either species which has a full complement of tail feathers.

Oil the other hand, Major Bendire (1895) says: “I am aware that this species has been accused of destroying the eggs and even of eating the young, of smaller birds, but I am strongly inclined to believe that this accusation is unjust, and in my opinion requires more substantial confirmation. I have never yet had any reason to suspect their robbing smaller birds’ nests, and the very fact that they live in apparent harmony with such neighbors, who do not protest against their presence, as they are in the habit of doing should a Blue Jay, Grackle, or Crow come too close to their nests, seems to confirm this view.”

But then he goes on to quote from a letter from William Brewster, who says: “While I have never seen either of our Cuckoos destroy the eggs of other birds, nevertheless I think they do it occasionally. One of my reasons for this belief is that many of our small birds, Warblers, Sparrows, etc., show great anxiety whenever the Cuckoos approach their nests, and they pursue and peck at them when they take -wing, behaving toward them, in fact, exactly as they do toward the Crows, Jays, and Grackles, which we know eat eggs whenever they can get a chance. My other reason is that one of my friends once shot a Cuckoo (C. americay, I think it was) whose bill was smeared all over with the fresh yolk of an egg.”

Yellow-billed cuckoos sometimes catch tree frogs and other small frogs, and, in the Southern States, an occasional small lizard. Marcia B. Clay (1929) relates the following incident: “For an hour a Cuckoo searched about the dead under limbs of a huge untrimmed apple tree, peering and gliding noiselessly around and around. At last, after long and patient search, it dashed to the ground and began to walk directly toward me through the scant grass and weeds, and only then did I see a frog trying to slip away unseen. The bird followed the frog a rod, pecking its victim and gloating softly Cule, Cuk. Having vanquished its prey, the Cuckoo deftly gathered it into its bill and flew away, the frog’s legs sticking out stiff and straight together, exactly like the dead twigs which the Cuckoo carries to its nest.”

Behavior: Mr. Forbush (1927) has described the quiet, retiring behavior of the yellow-billed cuckoo very well as follows:

The cuckoo is a graceful, elegant bird, calm and unperturbed; it slips quietly and rather furtively through its favorite tangles and flies easily from tree to tree In the orchard, keeping for the most part under protection of the leaves, which furnish excellent cover for its bronzy, upper plumage, while the shadows of the foliage tend to conceal the whiteness of its under parts. It has a way also of keeping Its back with its greenish satiny reflections toward the intruder in its solitudes, and while holding an attitude of readiness for flight it sits motionless, and its plumage so blends with its leafy environment that it does not ordinarily catch the eye. In the meantime it turns its head and regards the disturber with a cool, reserved, direct gaze, looking back over its shoulder, apparently unafraid and giving no indication of nervousness or even undue curiosity; but if the observer approaches too closely, the elegant bird slips quietly away, vanishing into some leafy, cool retreat where it may enjoy the silence and solitude, dear to the woodland recluse.

The flight of the cuckoo is rather swift, easy and graceful, exceedingly direct and horizontal, but turning frequently from side to side as it threads its way through the branches of the trees, giving occasional glimpses of its white under parts and the telltale black-andwhite markings in its tail; it is stream-lined to perfection and glides noiselessly through the air with its long tail streaming out behind. It is very quiet in its movements in its shady retreats; it seldom perches in a conspicuous place but sits motionless for long periods in the dense foliage, watching, or moves about stealthily in search of its prey. It might easily be overlooked, were it not for its characteristic notes, which lead the observer to look for it.

About its nest it is rather shy, while incubating on its eggs, slipping away cautiously when approached, but when there are young in the nest its behavior is quite different. It then becomes quite solicitous and will often remain on the nest until almost touched, and then perhaps throw itself down to the ground, fluttering and tumbling along, feigning lameness, after the manner of many ground nesting birds, uttering loud, guttural cries of distress.

Voice: We hear the voice of the cuckoo much oftener than we see the bird; the well-known sound comes to us, like a wandering voice, from the depths of some shady retreat, but we cannot see the hidden author. We can recognize it easily as the voice of a cuckoo, but it is not always so easy to identify the species by its notes, though some keen observers claim that they can do so. Certain songs are characteristic of each of the two species, but both have a great variety of notes and many notes that are much alike in both. The notes of the yellow-billed cuckoo may be a trifle harsher and a little louder, but they are not always recognizable. The characteristic note of the yellow-billed cuckoo is well described by Charles J. Spiker (11935) as follows: “What may be considered the song of this species is a series of rapid, wooden-sounding syllables resembling the following: Kuk-kuk-kuk-k-,uk-kuk-ceaow-ceaow-ceaow-ceaoiv; the kuks being given rapidly, the ceaows more deliberately and with longer intervals.”

Bendire (1895) writes:

One of their commonest notes is a low “noo-coo-coo-coo;” another sounds more like “cow-cow-cow” or “kow-kow-kow,” several times repeated; others resemble the syllables of “ougb, ough, ough,” slowly and softly uttered; some remind me of the “kloop-kloop” of the Bittern; occasionally a note something like the “kiuh-kiuh-kiuh” of the Flicker is also uttered; a low sharp “touwity-whit” and “hweet hwee” is also heard during the nesting season. Though ordinarily not what might be called a social bird, I have sometimes during the mating season seen as many as eight in the same tree, and on such occasions they indulge in quite a number of calls, and if the listener can only keep still long enough he has an excellent opportunity to hear a regular Cuckoo concert.

Various other interpretations of the different notes have been given by other writers, but the above quotations cover fairly well the ordinary variations. The song, as given by Mr. Spiker above, is sometimes more prolonged by the series of kuk-s, with increasing speed of utterance and adding to the series of ceaows, with slowly decreasing speed. I believe that the black-billed cuckoo never gives this prolonged song, accelerated during the first half and retarded during the last half; its song is given in more even time, and is generally shorter. The song of the yellow-billed cuckoo is often heard during the night, and its notes are often uttered while flying.

Field marks: A cuckoo may be easily recognized as a cuckoo by its size, shape, and color-a long, slender bird, longer than a robin, with a long tail, olive-brown above and white below; but the two species look very much alike unless the distinctive markings can be clearly seen. The yellow lower mandible of this species can be seen only at short range. But the rufous in the wing feathers is evident in flight, and the lateral tail feathers are conspicuously black, with large terminal white areas clearly defined. At very close range the yellow eyelids of this species may be seen.

Range: Temperate North America, the Caribbean region, South and Central America; casual on Bermuda and accidental in western Europe.

Breeding range: The breeding range of the yellow-billed cuckoo extends north to southern British Columbia ~Kainloops) ; northeastern Oregon (Keenys Ferry) ; northern Utah (Salt Lake City) ; northern Colorado (Loveland, Greeley, and Fort Morgan) ; South Dakota (White River, Yankton, and Sioux Falls) ; Minnesota (Fosston and St. Paul) ; I~Viscoiisln (Ladysmith, Waupaca, and New London) ; northern AMIChigall (Blaney and Sault Ste. Marie) ; southern Ontario (Listowel, Rossoau, and Ottawa) ; northern New York (Watertown and Plattsburg); and southern Maine (Auburn). From this point the breeding range extends southward along the Atlantic coast to Florida (New Smyrna and Kissimmee) ; the Bahama Islands Inagua Island) ; probably the Dominican Republic (Dal.abon) ; and the Vir’gin Islands (St. ~Iroix). South to the Virgin Ishands (St. Croix) ; Jamaica Port Henderson) ; Coahuila (Sabinas River) southern Sonora (Guaymas) ; and southern Baja California, (San Jose del Rancho). West to Baja California (San Jose del Rancho and Cerro Pricto) California (Wilmington, Watsonville, Santa Clara, and Redding) ; Oregon (Salem) ; Washington (Grays Harbor, Tacoma, and Seattle) ; and British Columbia (Victoria, Chilliwack, and Kamloops).

The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into two geographic races. The yellow-billed cuckoo (C. a. awre . canus) occupies the eastern part of the range west to South Dakota, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and Oklahoma, while the California cuckoo (C. a. occidentalis) is found over the rest of the country to the Pacific coast.

Winter range: The winter home of this species has not been accurately determined, but it extends north to northern Colombia (Santa Marta, Bonda, Medellin, and Antioquia) ; and Venezuela (San Cristobal, Altagracia, the Orinoco River region, and Nericagua). It has been found at this season east to southeastern Brazil (Sdo Paulo) ; Uruguay (Rio Negro) ; and eastern Argentina (Buenos Aires and Lomas de Zamora). South, probably only casually to central Argentina (Lomas de Zamora and Saladillo). West to Argentina (Saladillo and La Riojo); Ecuador (Nono, Chimbo, Cunibaya, and Guapulo) ; and Colombia (Cienaga and Santa Marta).

Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: FloridaMelrose, March 12; Daytona Beach, April 9; Pensacola, April 13. Alabama-Autaugaville, April 16. Georgia-Savanilah, March 24; Kirkwood, April 7. South Carolina-Charleston, April 14. North Carolina-Raleigh, April 25; Weaverville, May 1. VirginiaLawrenceville, April 23; New Market, April 26. District of Columbia-Washington, April 27. Pennsylvania-Philadelphia, April 20; Beaver, May 6; Renovo, May 11. New Jersey-Morristown, April 7; Elizabeth, May 9. New York-Shelter Island, May 2; Rhinebeck, May 3; Watertown, May 12. Connecticut-Hartford, May 9; Jewett City, May 10. Rhode Island-Providence, May 11. Massacliusetts-Boston, May 4; Beverly, May 15. New HanipshireMilford, May 11. Vermont-St. Johnsbury, May 27. Maine-Lewiston, May 6; Fryeburg, May 19. Mississippi-Biloxi, April 6; Rodney, April 8; Oakvale, April 10. Arkansas-Helena, April 19; Delight, April 24. Tennessee Chattanooga, April 10; Knoxville, April 27. Kentucky-Eubank, April 22; Bowling Green, April 24. Missouri-St. Louis, April 28; Kansas City, April 30; Concordia, May 1. Illinois-Rantoul, May 2; Chicago, May 4; Olney, May 5.

Indiana-Terre Haute, April 17; Fort Wayne, April 29; Waterloo, May 4. Ohio-Oberlin, April 26; Columbus, April 29; Youngstown, May 7. Michigan-Detroit, May 4; Battle Creek, May 11. Ontario-London, May 8; Guelph, May 12. Iowa-Sioux City, April 30; Grinnell, May 9. Wisconsin-Madison, May 10; Racine, May 10; Lit Crosse, May 12. Minnesota-Minneapolis, May 6; Winona, May 8. Texas-Fredericksburg, April 1; Kerrville, April 7; San Antonio, April 14. Oklahoina-Skiatook, April 20; Oklahoma City, May 3. Kansas-Ottawa, April 25; Onaga, April 28. NebraskaRed Cloud, April 29; Lincoln, May 7. South Dakota-Vermillion, May 17. New Mexico—State College, May 25. Arizona-Phoenix, May 1; Tombstone, May 20. Colorado-Lon-mont, May 20; Denver, May 28. Cal iforni–iPet alum a, April 18; Pico, May 5; Berryessa, May 13. Oregon-Sauvies Island, April 24. Washington-Tacoma, May 3.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: CaliforniaMurphys, September 1; Vineland, September 22. Colorado-Yuma, September 3; Clear Creek, September 8. Arizona-Tucson, September 8. New Mexico-Mesilia Park, September 7; State College September 18. North Dakota-Grafton, September 4. South Dakota-Lennox, September 15; Yankton, September 24. NebraskaDunbar, September 27; Lincoln, October .5. Kansas-Onaga, October 1. Oklahoma-Copan, September 23, Kenton, September 30. Texas-Bonbam, September 2.5; Swan, September 28; Kerrville, October 19. Minnesota-Minneapolis, October 1; Hastings, October 20.

Wisconsin-Madison, September 27; Racine, October 6. Iowa~ Grinnell, October 22. Ontario-Galt, October 2; London, October 11; Point Pelee, October 16. Michigan-Detroit, October 8. OhioYoungstown., October 12; Columbus, October 19; Oberlin, October 21. Indiana-Sedan, October 13. Illinois-Chicago, October 18; Rantoul, October 24. AIM~ouri-Concordia, October 10. Kentucky-Lexington, October 10. Tennessee-Nashville, October 11. Arkansas-Delight, October 20. Alississippi-Biloxi, October 11. Maine-Fryebur-, September 1. Verniont-St. Johnsbury, September 12. Massactitisetts-Marthas Vinevard, September 24; Lanesborough, September 229; Hadley, October iS. Connecticut-Aleriden, October 12; New Haven, October 16; Portland, October 17. New York-Rhinebeck, October 1; New York City, October 12. New Jersey–Morristown, October 9; Elizabeth, October 12. Pennsylvanla-Beaver. September 27; Philadelphia, October 17 ; Renovo, November 12. DI’striet of Col u nib i a-Wa shin gton, October 13. Virginia-Lawrenceville, October 12. North Carolina-Raleigh, October 17. South Carolina-Motint Pleasant., November 7. GeorgiaSavannah, October 19. Florid a-Pensacol a, November 2.

Casual records: While the yellow-billed cuckoo may be considered only as a casual visitor to Berinuda, an extraordinary invasion was recorded on October 9, 1849, wheii thousands of individuals suddenly appeared in all parts of the island; a few more have been subsequently reported. During the period from 182.5 to 1921 it was recorded fully a dozen times from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, all these occurrences being in fall and mostly during October. One was taken at Bois de Lesedes, Belgium, in October 1874, and one was collected at Turin, 1taly, on October 28, 1883. Two occurrences have been recorded front the southern part of France, but there is some question that they were correctly identified.

Egg dates: Arizona.: 13 records, June 28 to August 24; 7 records, July 19 to Au-tist 22. California: 55 records, May 15 to Atio-ust 20; 28 records, June 17 to July 10, indicating the height of the season. Florida: 19 records, April 12 to August 2.5, 10 records, April 16 to May 16. Illinois: 39 records, Alay 20 to Jidy 19; 20 records, June 4 to 26. New York: 23 records, May 24 to August 19; 12 records, June 4 to 11. Pennsylvania: 43 records, June 6 to July 29. Texas: 34 records, -March 22 to June 20; 17 records, May 6 to July 5.


This western race of our common yellow-billed cuckoo has been separated on very slight average characters, hardly worthy of recognition in nomenclature. I am inclined to agree with Harry S. Swarth (1929), Nyho says:

Between the eastern and western races of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo there is a slight average difference in size, the western bird being the larger and with a somewhat heavier bill. There is a rather wide range of variation in specimens from any one locality, * * * and the largest eastern birds do not fall far short of the maximum measurements of western specimen, Birds from the Pacific coast are the largest, those from central Arizona near the type locality of occidentalis (the Santa Rita Mountains) are intermediate in size. The sub species would have a better claim to recognition if restricted to the Pacific coast. The subspecies is certainly as slightly differentiated as any in our Check-list, and I feel that no violence to the facts would result from suppression of the name.

The California cuckoo is nowhere abundant but seems to be generally distributed, in suitable localities, throughout its range from British Columbia to Lower California and other parts of Mexico. In southern California, its favorite haunts seem to be the willow thickets and groves along the beds of streams, or in willow-bottom sloughs, such as the famous Nigger Slough, which formerly existed near Los Angeles. Alfred C. Shelton (1911) describes a favorite haunt in Sonoma County, Calif., as follows: “In the locality of which I write, about five miles southeast of Sabastopol, this stream, known locally as the ‘Lagoon’, becomes, after some winter storm, a turbulent river, flooding acres upon acres of bottom land. In summer its course is marked by a chain of long, rather narrow ponds, many of which are deep. The banks, and much of the intervening space between these ponds, are covered with a thick growth of willow, small ash and scrub oak, while the whole is tangled together with an undergrowth of poison oak, wild blackberry and various creepers, forming, as it were, an impenetrable jungle, hanging far out over the water.”

Spring: Mr. Shelton (1911) has this to say about the spring movements of the California cuckoo:

Of all migratory birds breeding in this vicinity, the Cuckoo is the last to arrive in the spring, usually appearing during the latter part of May or the first week of June. Upon its arrival, this bird keeps to the higher land, among the oaks and other timber, for a period of two or three weeks before retiring to the willow bottoms to breed. During this period it is wild and shy and difficult to approach. Most active in the early morning, its characteristic note, a loud, clear “kow-kow-kow,” may be heard coming from some tree or group of trees, and perchance an answering “kow-kow-kow,” may come from another tree, some distance away. * * *

After the birds retire to the willow bottoms to breed, their entire attitude changes. When watched and studied in the seclusion of their brush grown haunts, while engrossed with the cares of their domestic duties, the Cuckoos cease to be the wild, -by birds of the upland timber. The familiar “kow-kowkow” is now forsaken for another note, a low guttural note, “kuk-kuk-kuk,” always uttered by a brooding bird and is the most common call of the cuckoo during the breeding season.

Courtship: J. H. Bowles (Dawson and Bowles, 19O9) writes: “While standing in an open woodland listening to a pair of Cuckoos calling to each other, I saw the male suddenly fly past with a large green worm in his bill. He flew directly to the female, who was perched in a tree a few yards distant, and for a moment or two they sat motionless a few inches apart looking at each other. The male then hovered lightly over his mate and, settling gently upon her shoulders, gracefully bent over and placed the worm in her bill. It was a pretty and daintily performed piece of love-making.”

Nesting: The nesting habits of the California, cuckoo are much like those of its eastern relative. In California its favorite nesting sites are in willow thickets in the river bottoms, or in such swampy lowlands as those referred to above. D. E. Brown writes to me that it is a rare bird in western Washington, and says: “It is found mostly in willow swamps, on the shores of fresh-water lakes, and along streams where the underbrush is thick. I have seldom seen it very far away from fresh water and never in real thick woods. It is a late arrival and does not begin nest building until about the fourth of July. I have found about a dozen occupied nests and only one of these was earlier than the above dalle; this one was on June 19. All these nests were in willow or wild-rose bushes, except one which was in a spirea bush. All nests were 2 to 8 feet from the ground, or water – when built in swamps. The nest is a very frail, small affair composed of twigs loosely put together and lined with finer twigs and sometimes a few leaves. Most of the nests that I have seen have been so very flat and small that they would be exceedingly hard to find if the birds were not, on them.”

A nest in the Thayer collection, taken near Kirkland, Wash., on July 7. 1909, was found in an open space in a fir forest in low ground, which was dotted with a second growth of fir and some Osmaronia and Spiraea; it was placed on a branch of a fir on the exposed side of the tree, 9 feet from the ground; it was made of old fir twigs and lined with fresh fir twigs. I have heard of other Washington nests in fir trees.

Major Bendire (1895) says:

The nests here [Arizona] were placed in willow or mesquite thickets, from 10 to 15 feet from the ground, and they were usually fairly well concealed by the surrounding foliage. * * * If the California Cuckoo showed the same parasitic habit of occasionally depositing one or more of its eggs in the nests of other birds, as its eastern relatives are now and then known to do, I believe that I should have observed the fact in southern Arizona. Here I found eight of their nests with eggs, and fully five hundred nests of smaller birds, which nested in similar localities among the willow thickets and mesquite bushes. overrun with vines, in the creek bottoms, but not a Single instance of parasitism came under my observation.

Wilson C. Hanna (1937) has published an interesting paper on the nesting habits of the California cuckoo in the San Bernardino Valley, Calif., with a photograph of a nest containing the unusual number of seven eggs, he writes:

I have rather complete notes on twenty-four nests that I saw – examined in the field, six along Warm Creek and eighteen along the Santa Ana River, and with two exceptions all were in willow trees. In one place the nest was 11 feet up in an older tree next to the trunk, and in the other case 30 feet up in a cottonwood tree on top of a bare limb partly supported by a few twigs and therefore conspicuous. The last mentioned nest was ten feet higher than any other nest I have seen. Six of the nests in willows were either partly supported by or covered with wild grape vines, another nest was well concelled in the center of live mistletoe, while still another was well hidden in poison oak that was growing over the dead willow tree. A few nests were placed next to the trunks of trees, but by far the most common location was well out on a horizontal or leaning limb. The average height above ground or water was less than thirteen feet and two were only four feet up. A good supply of rope and a ladder were necessary for examining some of the nests without disturbing them or the surroundings.

Nests were always loose structures, of coarse twigs for a foundation, sometimes with a little superimposed grape-vine bark, cottonwood bark, or rootlets. In some cases there was no other lining and eggs could be seen through the bottom of the nest: but usually there were fresh or old leaves, bark strips, or willow cotton. In only one nest was there a feather in the lining. Often the nests were much longer in one dimension than the other, in one case four inches wide and twelve inches long.

Eggs: A California cuckoo lays usually three or four eggs, occasionally only two. These are indistinguishable from those of the eastern yellow-billed cuckoo and average only slightly larger. The measurements of 43 eggs average 31.1 by 23.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 35.5 by 23.5, 33.5 by 25, and 27.5 by 21 millimeters.

Food: Bendire (1895) Says that in a brood that he watched, the young were fed “always with a large black cricket (Anabus simplex or purpuratus) * * *. They picked most of these repulsive-looking creatures from grass stalks and low shrubs on which they were feeding, and although there were numbers of them to be found all around, as well as in camp, they generally went off some little distance to get them.”

Mr. Swarth (1929) says that a female, collected in Arizona, “contained in its stomach two green caterpillars and a lizard 100 millimeters long, the latter swallowed entire and rolled into a coil. This seems a startling diet for a tree-dwelling cuckoo, but there is at least one other instance reported, also from the vicinity of Tucson, of a lizard being taken by one of these birds.”

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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