Birds of Barrington with Wendy Paulson: Black-billed Cuckoo

I probably would not have chosen the black-billed cuckoo (Coccyrus erythropthalmus) to profile in Birds of Barrington for some years (when I was running out of species!), as it’s a secretive bird, little known and seldom seen by most, even committed bird watchers. But this May I saw no fewer than five black-billed cuckoos, newly arrived from South America, in less than a week. So I decided that this was the time to write about the bird, and hope that the surprising number of observations might mean that others will encounter the species this spring and summer, too.

You will not find the black-billed cuckoo in town, residential areas, or parks. It prefers wilder places, usually woodlands or thickets with some emergent trees. The species regularly nests in the part of Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve that I census each June for breeding birds. But sometimes I will go an entire nesting season without seeing a black-billed cuckoo, though I record its presence when I hear it.

The vocalization is not so much a song as a series of clucks and coos. Our regions hosts two species of cuckoo – the black-billed and more commonly occurring yellow-billed – and for whatever reason, I have a hard time remembering the distinction between their calls and have to relearn it every year. To my ears, the black-billed cuckoo’s notes sound hollow and staccato, softer and less varied than those of the yellow-billed cuckoo. The propensity of both species to vocalize before rainstorms has earned them the nickname of “rain crows.”

The bird is difficult to spot for a couple reasons. First, its flight is inconspicuous; it is usually more of a glide than a flapping of wings, and the duration of the glide is relatively brief, from one tree to another nearby. Once perched, the bird tends to remain motionless – the other reason it can be hard to spot. It never ceases to amaze me that such a large bird – it’s a foot long from beak to tail tip – can so quickly become invisible. But in the shade of foliage, staying perfectly still as it watches for insects, the cuckoo can easily evade visual detection.

But what a treat if and when one’s binoculars do find the bird. It is long and slender with white underparts, remarkably long tail, and rich olive-brown back. It has a prominent head with slightly decurved black bill and red skin outlining the eyes.

The black-billed cuckoo favors large insects for its diet, especially cicadas, tent caterpillars, and the larvae of gypsy moths. It travels a LONG way for nourishment and nesting habitat: its migration from western Colombia and Ecuador to the northern United States and southern Canada, including the Barrington area, certainly qualifies it as one of epic proportions. In years of local caterpillar irruptions, the cuckoo is often more abundant.

My most memorable encounter with a black-billed cuckoo occurred one June when I was conducting a breeding bird survey. I spotted one low in a shrub and wondered why it didn’t move as I approached. When I trained my binoculars on the bird I realized it was a parent feeding a youngster perched on a branch just below. I since learned that black-billed cuckoo offspring leave the nest only 6-7 days after hatching, twice as early as most songbird fledglings. Even more interesting is the fact that they are bare-skinned until about the sixth day when feathers erupt from feather tubes like popcorn.

Your best chance of seeing – or hearing – a black-billed cuckoo this spring or summer will be in local forest preserves (Cook County’s Spring Creek, Poplar Creek, Deer Grove, or Lake County’s Cuba Marsh) or sites protected by Citizens for Conservation, such as Flint Creek Savanna. Though I already have seen five this early spring, I look forward to spotting and hearing more, and hope that you do, too.


About the Author

Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.

Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.

Wendy also leads a series of spring and fall bird walks in the Barrington area with Citizens for Conservation. For the full schedule of Wendy’s Spring 2016 walks, CLICK HERE.

Dates, times and locations for her upcoming walks include:

  • May 31, 7:00 a.m.
    Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
  • June 10, 7:00 a.m.
    Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
  • June 17, 7:00 a.m.
    Galloping Hill* (as above)
  • June 19, 5:00 p.m.
    Longmeadow* (north side of Longmeadow Dr. off Bateman Rd)

* indicates a more strenuous hike

Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or djacobson@audubon.org and let them know how best to contact you should that be necessary. Before you head out, check the Citizens for Conservation website for last minute changes or cancellations.

You an also CLICK HERE to explore all of the local bird profiles featured in Wendy’s monthly Birds of Barrington series at 365Barrington.com.

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