Yellow-billed cuckoo

Common Name:
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
Scientific Name:
Coccyzus americanus
Type:
Birds
Size:
Length: 12 inches
IUCN Red List Status:
Least concern
Current Population Trend:
Decreasing

Generally shy and elusive, the yellow-billed cuckoo can be easily overlooked. Its calls are usually loud and often provide the best evidence to the presence of the bird. It favors eating caterpillars and seems to respond well to outbreaks of tent caterpillars.

Identification

The yellow-billed cuckoo has a slender body, a long tail, and rounded wings. Adults have grayish brown upperparts with whitish underparts. The crown can be noticeably grayer than the rest of the upperparts on some individuals. The rounded wings have reddish primaries. The long tail is graduated with brown central rectrices tipped in black; the remainder are black and broadly tipped with white. It has a yellow orbital ring. The bill is curved with a black culmen extending over much of the upper mandible; the lower mandible is yellow with a black tip. 

Immature yellow-billed cuckoos look similar to the adult but have buffy undertail coverts. The undertail pattern is muted and the tips of the rectrices are buffy and not as prominent. The orbital ring is a dull yellow.

Geographic variation

Presently considered monotypic; however, there have been two subspecies described: americanus in eastern North America and occidentalis in the Southwest. The differentiation of these taxa is weak and limited in the contact zone.

Similar species

The yellow-billed cuckoo most closely resembles the black-billed cuckoo, but it is distinguished by the yellow orbital ring, rufous primaries, more prominently white-tipped tail, and the yellow lower mandible. Some calls, however, are quite similar.

Voice

The bird's call is a rapid staccato kuk-kuk-kuk that usually slows and descends into a kakakowlp-kowlp ending; it sounds hollow and wooden.

Status and distribution

Common in eastern North America, the yellow-billed cuckoo is becoming increasingly rare and local in much of the West. It breeds in open woodlands with dense undergrowth, riparian corridors, and parks. Southwestern populations are increasingly limited to riparian corridors. 

The yellow-billed cuckoo is a trans-Gulf migrant as well as southeastward over Caribbean Islands. In spring, the Gulf Coast peak occurs around May 1 and in the southern Great Lakes May around May 10. In fall, the cuckoo wanders up the eastern seaboard as far north as Newfoundland with a southern Great Lakes peak around August 20 and Gulf Coast peak around September 10. It is rare in the United States after November 1. Southwestern populations arrive in late May–early June. In the winter, the cuckoo is casual to accidental along Gulf Coast, yet these records could pertain to lingering fall migrants. The majority of the population winters in northern South America, as far south as northern Argentina.

Population

Populations in the western United States are declining fairly rapidly and are of considerable conservation concern. These populations depend on riparian corridors, which are under increasing pressure from exotic plants, water impoundment, and other factors. In 2014, the yellow-billed cuckoo was listed for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006


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