365+ Things to See, Do & Celebrate in Barrington, IL
Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Often on restoration workdays with Citizens for Conservation, participants share sightings of mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, plants they have seen recently. We also pause at times to study something discovered by a fellow worker as we collect seed or plant wetland plugs or pull invasive plants – perhaps an unusual butterfly or a leopard frog or a moth cocoon. My ears are always open to birdsong and I like to point out nearby vocalizations so that others can familiarize themselves with the sounds.
This summer, once workdays resumed under COVID-19 protocols, one bird species has offered such frequent accompaniment that just about everyone involved has learned to identify its sound. It can hardly be called a song, but it is rather more of a chant which ornithologist David Sibley calls guttural. The vocalization belongs to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), a good-sized, elegantly shaped bird that populates the Barrington area only in summer and whose favorite food is caterpillars.
I’m always happy to hear or see cuckoos – they come in both yellow-billed and black-billed varieties – but can sometimes go an entire nesting season without seeing one. This year has been different. I’ve seen Yellow-billed cuckoos on bike rides, bird walks, in my yard, at CFC workdays at Flint Creek Savanna. A Conservation Corps intern asked me in June about a largish bird she’d spotted flying on the slope above Spring Creek Prairie, telling me it was brown with white underparts. While I was puzzling over the question, she spotted it again and we were both able to watch, at relatively close range, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo perched on a fallen log. Everything about that sighting was unusual: the species rarely is seen near the ground and it rarely perches in plain view, especially for more than a few seconds. Most often it disappears mysteriously into tree foliage even though you KNOW where it landed!
The intern was right. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is brown, though it has conspicuous chestnut flight feathers. It has a remarkably long tail and a graceful, gliding flight. It can be difficult to tell the two cuckoo species apart. But if the impression is rufous, it’s a Yellow-billed. Another distinction is the tail, if you get to see it: the Yellow-billed Cuckoo has large white spots on its black tail feathers. And of course its bill is mostly yellow, not black like its cousin’s.
An additional difference is the voice. I have to admit that I have a hard time remembering, from year to year, which call belongs to which cuckoo. This summer, after listening to so many Yellow-bills, I believe I’ll not again mistake its dove-like chant nor its accelerating ku-ku-ku-ku-ku-ku-kwol-kwol for the notes of the Black-bill.
Soon the Yellow-billed Cuckoos that have nested locally will reverse their long spring migration and fly south, usually via Central America, to winter throughout the Andes-Amazon region as far south as Bolivia. They will linger in our area until late August and September. Good places to watch and listen for them include wooded forest preserves, CFC’s Flint Creek Savanna, and other little-populated, wooded sites. Listen for their hollow chants, stop when you hear them, and see if you can get a glimpse of this enigmatic, sleek, fascinating bird.
About Wendy Paulson
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.
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.
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