Bird of the Week: Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Painting 1916 Robert Bruce Horsfall.


Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo arrives in the Texas hill country in late spring and leaves in mid-September when they migrate to South America. The slender, long-tailed birds with yellow beaks stay silent during the day. They fly through dense woods and shrubs hunting for caterpillars, cicadas, and other insects. They remain hidden during the day by sitting very still and hunching forward, further concealing their white underparts. In flight, one may see rufous flashes of the bird’s underwings.

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS.

Though the bird stays hidden, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo has a distinctive drawn out knocking call that may be given at any time, night or day. However, during migration, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo stays mostly silent.

Many species of the cuckoo bird have long been a talisman of spring and summer time. Starting in the thirteenth century, poets wrote about the cuckoo bird in adulation for a return to verdant scenery and new life. The manuscript of “Summer is icumen” or “The Cuckoo Song” dates to 1262 and is written in middle English.  The first stanza reads:

“Summer has arrived

Loudly sing, cuckoo!

The seed is grounding

And the meadow is blooming,

And the wood is coming into lead now,

Sing, cuckoo!”

The cuckoo is a favorite in Shakespeare’s verse, who writes about the habit of the cuckoo to lay its eggs in the nests of other birds. In the first act of King Lear, the Fool says, “For you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had it head bit off by it young.”

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo species, though, participates in this parasitic egg behavior to a much lesser degree than the Eurasian Cuckoo. During times of food abundance, such as cicada or tent caterpillar outbreaks, Yellow-billed Cuckoos sometimes lay eggs in nests of other cuckoos as well as in those of American Robins, Gray Catbirds, and Wood Thrushes.

Yellow-Billed Cuckoos don’t lay their eggs all at once: the period between one egg to the next can stretch to as long as five days. This “asynchronous” egg laying means the oldest chick can be close to leaving the nest when the youngest is just hatching. When food is in short supply the male may remove the youngest bird from the nest, though unlike their relative the Greater Roadrunner, they don’t feed them to the older siblings.

The cuckoo also makes its way into more modern literature, for example, in reference by novelist Haruki Murakami, who uses the absence of the cuckoo’s song to set the scene in daytime, yet somehow something is off. However, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s call may be heard during the day or night except during migration.


Written and compiled by Lindsey Hernandez.

Sources include All About Birds and eBird.