Speaking of Nature: Finally, after all these years — the black-billed cuckoo

  • For a while the only view I had of the black-billed cuckoo was a narrow view of its eye as it furtively skulked through the underbrush. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • When he finally popped out into the open, I got a picture of his long, slender body and eve longer and more slender tail. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 5/30/2022 12:32:14 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, if I could have your attention please. After 25 years of writing about nature it is a rare and wonderful thing indeed to be able to announce that I have finally managed to get photos of a bird that has proven diabolically elusive. It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of time and a lot of patience, but now I can introduce you all to the black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzuserythropthalmus).

My first encounter with this species was back in 1989 while I was in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. I was on an inner tube and floating down a lazy river through the pitch-pine forest. There were many other people enjoying the same activity, each on his or her own tube and each taking in the scenery in his or her own way. The water in the river amazed me because the tannins from the pine needles had turned it dark brown, like a strong cup of tea. I was also impressed by the trees themselves and it was while gazing up at them that I saw a cuckoo land on a branch above the river.

Long and slim in its profile, the bird’s head and wings were the color of milk chocolate, while its breast feathers were a pure white. I also noted that the bird’s tail was almost as long as the rest of the bird’s body, but my view of the bird was brief. Even the lazy current of the river was enough to sweep me away before too long, but that first image of the bird will be burned into my brain forever.

Almost 33 years later I finally managed to put myself in the right place at the right time to get a photo of this secretive bird. I know that I don’t have a lot of space here, so I am just going to get right to the details. This is a species that I would characterize as a long-distance migrant. Birds in our area have come all the way from South America, where they spend the winter in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, the western edge of Brazil, and Bolivia. They traveled up through Central America and then fanned out across the eastern half of North America as far north as the fringe of southern Canada.

Larger than a blue jay, the black-billed cuckoo is heard more often that it is seen. I have recorded this species on my monthly bird lists for years, but I have never managed to get a decent photo of one. There was a moment last spring when I thought I had succeeded, but the photos were too blurry to use. That was a shame because the bird was close. The lighting was just too low and there was enough of a breeze to keep everything moving. That was frustrating.

I think it is fair to say that cuckoos are unusual birds. One of their favorite foods is hairy caterpillars, which other birds tend to avoid. They are also remarkable for the short duration of their nesting period. Their eggs are incubated for only 10-13 days and their chicks can fledge in as few as 7 days. Prior to leaving the nest, the young cuckoos will have all of their feathers “sheathed,” which will give them a spiky appearance like a porcupine, or a hedgehog. When the birds are old enough to fly, the sheaths “pop” and they are suddenly fully feathered.

Another odd physical characteristic comes in the orientation of their toes. Most passerines have the “traditional” foot of a bird with three toes facing forward and one toe facing backward. Known as “anisodactyl feet,” this is the arrangement found on crows, finches, aparrows and even the daytime hawks. But the cuckoo is unusual and has a different design. With two toes pointing forward and the other two pointing backward, this “zygodactyl” arrangement is the same found on woodpeckers, owls and parrots.

So how did finally get photos of a black-billed cuckoo? Well, I had a little help from technology. I brought a wireless speaker down to my Thinking Chair on a beautiful morning and I played a hunch. I had heard my first black-billed cuckoo song the previous morning and I thought I might get lucky if I played the song a couple times. Boy did that work out! In very short order a cuckoo showed up, but then the waiting game began.

Cuckoos are unusual birds and this male did not behave like a warbler or a towhee. Those birds would have started making all sorts of noise as they aggressively searched for the interloper, but this cuckoo seemed to be in slow motion. It was there, but it wasn’t very energetic in its movements. From the time I took my first photo of the bird (through heavy vegetation), to the time he finally popped out into the open, I had spent over 30 minutes waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, he landed on an exposed branch and gave me the shot I was looking for. However, I still like the first photo because it shows the unusual ring of red skin that surrounds the cuckoo’s eye. I like this because the bird’s scientific name, “Coccyzuserythropthalmus” means, “the cuckoo with red eyes.”

By the time I was done straining to get a look through my viewfinder I think my own eyes were a little red, but the feeling of success was so good in that moment. Now, when I hear the distant, “coo-coo-coo” song of this secretive bird I can close my eyes and hear the breeze flowing through the leaves of the cottonwood as I remember my wonderful morning with a cuckoo.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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