Yellow-billed Cuckoos aren’t really that cuckoo!! That statement is quite evident when we find that a Momma Cuckoo has chosen another bird species’ nest to lay an egg or two. In this bizarre way, Cuckoos are propagating, but another set of parents will do the hard work necessary to raise an “odd bird” that is sometimes, much larger than their own nestlings. Recently, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo fledgling was admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport who appeared to be cat or hawk attacked. The more interesting than sad part of this story is the fact that when the Good Samaritan rescuer found the Cuckoo, it was still on its feet, on the ground and being fed by Mom and Dad Robins. The only explanation to that scene is the young Cuckoo hatched in a Robin’s nest. Upon admittance to the shelter, a large gaping hole was found in his neck area during examination. Other than that, he was alert, healthy, still eating well and after ensuring the injured area was cleaned and remained clean the wound managed to close and heal itself within a week. Of course, we, at the shelter focused on everything we could to make sure the YBC remained healthy, but we have to thank the Robin parents for what they did to get him to the hardy condition he was in before the attack, which helped him survive something so traumatic. Our YBC is doing very well, eating so many meal worms it’s difficult to keep count and his vocal chattering roll is quite a pleasant addition to the bird sounds in the nursery. Yellow-billed Cuckoo infants will grow into fairly large, long and slim birds. Right now his slightly down-curved bill is all black, but it will turn mostly yellow as he matures and is almost as long as his head. When fully feathered, they will have a very long tail, dark in color on top, but black with white oval spots underneath. Their wings appear pointed and swept back in flight as they fly in a straight path using sharp wing beats with only a slight pause between them. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are warm brown above and whitish below. Their charcoal gray face sports yellow eye-rings as an adult. In flight, the outer part of their wings will flash brownish red. Their coloring allows them to sit well hidden in woodlands that offer gaps and clearings as they wait for prey such as caterpillars (their fave), cicadas, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, katydids and other flying insects to come into view. YBC’s will wreck havoc on webworm infestations. In one sitting, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo can put away 100 webworms or tent caterpillars. So in that way, they are environmental partners who keep insect numbers down and save trees! They may also feast on small lizards, frogs, eggs of other birds, and berries such as elderberries, black berries and small fruits. During winter, with the absence of insect prey, fruit and seeds become a larger part of their diet. They are slow, methodical hunters who hang out in treetops that line water sources. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are easy to hear, if you know their distinctive call, but very hard to spot. People have referred to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo as a “Rain Crow” because they are often heard on extremely hot days, and it’s imagined by humans that the Cuckoo is calling for rain. In courtship, the male feeds the female. Their chosen nest site is in a tree, shrub, or vines and usually 4-10′ above the ground, sometimes up to 20′ or higher. In the east, Yellow-billed Cuckoos nest in oaks, beech, hawthorn and ash. The small, loosely-made platform of twigs and stems, with a thin lining of grass, pine needles, leaves and other materials constitutes the nest which is made by both male and female. Cuckoos lay 1-5 pale bluish green eggs and remember, not always in their own nest! When they do incubate their own, it will take 9-14 days and the infants will be fed by both parents. After hatching, they can fly in about 3 weeks. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos’ status is listed as “Threatened” due to a general decline in their numbers occurring in the last few decades. The cause of decline is attributed to vast habitat loss and the rise and fall of insect outbreaks, which is their food source. As long-distance, nocturnal migrants, Yellow-billed Cuckoos are also vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines and other structures. Although approximately 84% of the world’s Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in the United Sates, in the western states, sightings of YBC’s have become very rare. Generally shy and elusive, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can be easily overlooked, but its calls are usually loud and often provide the best evidence to their presence. The next time you are taking a walk or doing a little bird watching in Carteret County, listen for that nearly eight second chatter of “ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” followed by a soft cooing, then a “kow, kow, kow.” It just might be “one in the same” released Yellow-billed Cuckoo who spent some rehabilitation time with us at the shelter. Don’t forget to throw him an appreciative wave, while thanking him for eating those pesky insects that are more than an annoyance and definitely unwanted in your neck of the woods.
Author of “Save Them All“