June 20, 2012

Not your typical neighbors - Black-billed Cuckoos...

Upon us are the quintessential summer days of Maine - with perfect 70 degree weather and poofy cumulus clouds framing the giant eastern white pines it truly is the way life should be.  I have been spending lots of time in the yard soaking up all the sun and birdsong - June has been a great month for yard birds so far.

While tending my garlic crop that will surely rival my Dad's garlic harvest this year, I heard a soft and gentle "poo-poo-poo" from the side yard.  As the bird continued to sing I went over to the edge and waited the sucker out - and it showed!  There it was - a Black-billed Cuckoo (BBCU) - IN MY YARD!  


Then I heard a second BBCU gurgling out some guttural grunts low in the thick bushes.  Here I was looking at one of the most elusive birds in North America, in my yard, flitting from branch to branch like the literature says they don't often do.  Sweeeet.  He had a caterpillar in his mouth and proceeded to perform a little ritual in the dark lower branches of a tree in the hedge above where the grunts were coming from.  I left the scene as not to disturb the precopulatory ceremony and immediately went inside to dork out in books.  I read that this behavior often goes down near the nest site - I was so excited that these BBCU's might nest on my property!
   
Of course I didn't have my camera with me for the courtship spectacle, but later in the day one of them was kind enough to perch out in the open...



As usual, the light was unkind to me, but what a magnificent bird...


Cuckoos belong to the outlandish and ancient family Cuculidae.  In North America, the bizarre triangle of this family is made up of Roadrunners (genus Geococcyx); Cuckoos (genus Coccyzus); and Anis (genus Crotophaga).  I read that fossil records of the Cuculidae family date to more than 37 million years ago.  That's just crazy!
  
I had pretty much written off the genus Coccyzus altogether after a failed attempt to spy a Mangrove Cuckoo in Florida last year.  And a Smooth-billed Ani was out of the question.  I would have to be satisfied that I had seen a fellow, yet less-elusive Cuculid - this Greater Roadrunner, in CA that year...

  


Words used to describe Black-billed Cuckoos in the literature include 'retiring'; 'skulky'; 'silent'; 'sluggish'; 'uncommon'; 'solitary'; and 'easily overlooked'.  Apparently the secretive members of this cuckoo society are heard more often than seen and are notorious for teasing bird-nerds who are cuckoo for cocoa puffs...


Contrary to General Mills propaganda (and I'm not exactly sure which cuckoo species "Sonny" is supposed to be) the Black-billed variety gorges on caterpillars, not chocolatey breakfast poofs.  I rigorously tested this of course...




The scientific literature says BBCU's eat thousands of caterpillars per season - a single BBCU was observed eating 79 caterpillars in a matter of minutes!  They tear and poke into the caterpillar nests and also pluck the juicy treats from branches and leaves.  Whole trees have been cleared of often noxious species of caterpillars in less than a day.  Just imagine the potential benefit to orchards and forests...tent caterpillars and gypsy moths be gone!  

Greater numbers of BBCU's are seen during years of caterpillar outbreaks.  In my mind, this must mean that cuckoos make for happy trees.  I took this picture in the area where I first saw/heard the pair - those holes look suspiciously cuckoo-billed sized...

 
Wait, it gets even better.  Cuckoos "prepare" their meals.  This involves bashing, mashing, shaking, and hammering prey items before they eat them.  Many of the caterpillars BBCU's eat are hairy and these hairs create mats that stick to the BBCU stomach lining.  Here's the science non-fiction hook - when it gets too clogged for proper digestion the BBCU can slough off it's entire stomach lining and regurgitate it as a pellet.  Talk about evolution at its finest!

I've continued to hear and see them around the property, sometimes I can hear them 'cu-cu-cooing' while I'm in the house.  Yesterday I happened to witness them unabashedly gorging themselves in the willows in the yard.  Suddenly my secret BBCU pals were overhead every few minutes, silently plucking fat n' juicy snacks from the branches as I sat drinking my coffee below!
 



I even witnessed the smashing and shaking of the caterpillars, yes those are bug guts slinging away to the right...


Maybe all that meal-prep helps remove some of those pesky caterpillar hairs, I certainly wouldn't want to be regurgitating my guts out anymore than I absolutely had to.  Holy hairballs Batman!




Only a few times did they land on the ground to retrieve dropped caterpillars.  The American Robins were on custodial duty for that.  Of course my only ground shot came out blurry, but I think it was trying to imitate an Accipiter and that pose is too funny not to share...


At one point I got up and walked away from my chair (and camera) only to turn a see a BBCU sitting on it.  There was some very comical behavior as they fanned their tails, hung upside down, and stretched to get caterpillars...



 
I watched them fly off in the same direction, to the same area every time they re-loaded with caterpillars.  They were bringing food back to babies!

Now it gets EVEN BETTER!  Today I was treated to seeing the baby cuckoos themselves.  BBCU's have one of the quickest egg-incubation-to-fledging periods - only about 17 days.  The young then leave the nest after only a week after hatching.  But they do have a flightless period that lasts a few weeks after leaving the nest.  These guys were hopping around branches and testing their wings.  I'm not sure anything could be more adorable...





Who knew cuckoos were so cool?!  I do know that I feel really lucky to have them as neighbors and to have even seen them at all, let alone have a cuckoo bonanza!  They're certainly in the running for my "Best Backyard Lifer of 2012".

8 comments:

  1. Great post Lauren! Never seen pics of cuckoo juvies.

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  2. Woahohoho Lauren! This is awesome!

    I slunked around for these birds for 10 days in Pennsylvania and did not find anything. How fantastic that they are nesting on your property, and now you've got chicks in your trees too!

    I'm super envious...going Cuckoo for this bird

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  3. Thanks! They are certainly the coolest yard birds I've ever had!

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  4. Lauren, a delightful post.

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  5. Wow, great yard birds! Awesome that you broke the curse and got to see them so well...I havent seen a Black-billed in many years, although when I was living in Pennsylvania I heard them all the time.

    Fledgling cuckoos....ridic.

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