European Cuckoo has long been famous for two peculiarities; the call of
the male, imitated by innumerable "cuckoo clocks", and the parasitic habits
of the females which, like our native Cowbird, invariably lay their eggs
in the nests of other birds. It was as prominent
the mythology and writings of the ancient Greeks as it is in the verses
of the English poets. It is twice mentioned in the Bible in the laws of
Moses which prohibited the Israelites from eating its flesh.
American cuckoos are wholly unlike their European and African cousins in
most respects. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a California variety of it, the
Black-billed Cuckoo, and two species which range as far north as southern
Florida, are not hawklike but resemble a slender pigeon with a longer neck
and tail. Like most birds, they almost always build their own nests and
faithfully rear their young. Other American
of this peculiar family are the Road-runner or Ground Cuckoos, and the
black Ani, or Tick Bird, found in southern Texas.
yellow-billed cuckoo, or Rain Crow, is a slender graceful bird about 12
inches long, dull brown above and grayish white below. It differs from
the black billed cuckoo in that the lower part of the long curved bill
is yellow instead of black, the under sides of its wings are reddish, and
its long black tail feathers are conspicuously marked with large white
spots. Although fairly common throughout eastern United
it keeps so well hidden among the foliage of orchards, or trees and thickets
near wet low places, and flies so furtively from tree to tree, that it
is rarely seen. Farmers believe that rain is coming when they hear its
peculiar call: a rapid series of guttural clucks with a hollow wooden sound,
slowing toward the end, like, "ka ka ka ka kowp - kowp - kowp - kowp".
Its nest is a flimsy platform of twigs, lined with a few rootlets,
a bush or small tree. When hatched, the young cuckoo has a naked coal-black
leathery skin like a young kingfisher, but within six days it bristles
with quill-like tubes which, when ready to leave the nest, it quickly plucks
off to release the feathers.
black-billed cuckoo has about the same range and habits, although it seems
to be fonder of extensive woodlands and more active at night. Its call
is a fast rhythmic even-pitched "cu cu cu, cucucu, cucucu". Both species
are valuable because, like the European cuckoo, they eat enormous numbers
of canker worms and caterpillars, especially the hairy or spiny kinds that
most birds avoid, such as the destructive tent
fall webworms and tussock moth larvae.
European cuckoo has apparently become unable to rear its own young. The
female sneaks into the nest of some smaller bird when she is absent, destroys
or carries away at least one egg, and lays one of her own. She may lay
20 or more eggs in as many nests -- always choosing the same kind of bird.
Different strains of the European cuckoo specialize on different species.
When it hatches, the young cuckoo destroys, or pushes out of the nest,
all other eggs and any chicks already hatched and settles down to gobble
the food brought by its industrious foster parents.
have only one such parasitic bird in the United States, the Brown-headed
Cowbird which used to follow the great herds of Bison and now attends our
cattle. The female lays 4 or 5 eggs, a day apart, each in a different nest.
Robins and catbirds destroy them, yellow warblers cover them with a new
nest, but most birds tolerate them. The young cowbird hatches quickly,
usually gets rid of the other eggs and nestling, eats greedily,
grows fast, and leaves in about 10 days.
cuckoos and cowbirds are fast guys with an egg!
Bulletin No. 346-A
Preserve District of Cook County
W. Dunne, President
F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation