Birds – Yellow-billed Cuckoo

(Coccyzus americanus)

Called also : RAIN CROW

Length—11 to 12 inches. About one-fifth longer than the robin.

Male and Female—Grayish brown above, with bronze tint in feathers. Underneath grayish white. Bill, which is as long as head, arched, acute, and more robust than the black-billed species, and with lower mandible yellow. Wings washed with bright cinnamon-brown. Tail has outer quills black, conspicuously marked with white thumb-nail spots. Female larger.

Range—North America, from Mexico to Labrador. Most common in temperate climates. Rare on Pacific slope. Migrations—Late April. September. Summer resident.

” Kak, k-kuk, k-kuk, k-kuk ! ” like an exaggerated tree-toad’s rattle, is a sound that, when first heard, makes you rush out of doors instantly to ” name ” the bird. Look for him in the depths of the tall shrubbery or low trees, near running water, if there is any in the neighborhood, and if you are more fortunate than most people, you will presently become acquainted with the yellow-billed cuckoo. When seen perching at a little distance, his large, slim body, grayish brown, with olive tints above and whitish below, can scarcely be distinguished from that of the black-billed species. It is not until you get close enough to note the yellow bill, reddish-brown wings, and black tail feathers with their white ” thumb-nail ” marks, that you know which cuckoo you are watching. In repose the bird looks dazed or stupid, but as it darts about among the trees after insects, noiselessly slipping to another one that promises better results, and hopping along the limbs after performing a series of beautiful evolutions among the branches as it hunts for its favorite “tent caterpillars,” it appears what it really is : an unusually active, graceful, intelligent bird.

A solitary wanderer, nevertheless one cuckoo in an apple orchard is worth a hundred robins in ridding it of caterpillars and inch-worms, for it delights in killing many more of these than it can possibly eat. In the autumn it varies its diet with minute fresh-water shellfish from the swamp and lake. Mulberries, that look so like caterpillars the bird possibly likes them on that account, it devours wholesale.

Family cares rest lightly on the cuckoos. The nest of both species is a ramshackle affair—a mere bundle of twigs and sticks without a rim to keep the eggs from rolling from the bush, where they rest, to the ground. Unlike their European relative, they have the decency to rear their own young and not impose this heavy task on others; but the cuckoos on both sides of the Atlantic are most erratic and irregular in their nesting habits. The overworked mother-bird often lays an egg while brooding over its nearly hatched companion, and the two or three half-grown fledglings already in the nest may roll the large greenish eggs out upon the ground, while both parents are off searching for food to quiet their noisy clamorings. Such distracting mismanagement in the nursery is enough to make a homeless wanderer of any father. It is the mother-bird that tumbles to the ground at your approach from sheer fright ; feigns lameness, trails her wings as she tries to entice you away from the nest. The male bird shows far less concern ; a no more devoted father, we fear, than he is a lover. It is said he changes his mate every year.

Altogether, the cuckoo is a very different sort of bird from what our fancy pictured. The little Swiss creatures of wood that fly out of the doors of clocks and call out the bed-hour to sleepy children, are chiefly responsible for the false impressions of our mature years. The American bird does not repeat its name, and its harsh, grating “huh, kith,” does not remotely suggest the sweet voice of its European relative.