A Cuckoo's Story

August 12, 2014

The flight to our nesting grounds in North America is far but worth it! We make our homes and start our families in secluded patches of riparian forests that are nestled among arid uplands of the western United States and Mexico. Western yellow-billed cuckoos occupy quality bird habitat!

Photo of Western Yellow billed Cuckoo

Photo Credit: Mark Dettling

Cuckoos are different than other migratory birds. We are a secretive species and people are delighted when they see us. We use a kind of social media that is defined by the way we knock, sing, "KOWLP!" and coo. We sometimes lay our eggs in other birds’ nests and have been observed to "adopt" another cuckoo’s fledgling chick. Our feet are zygodactyl; unlike most birds that have 3 toes pointed forwards and 1 toe pointed backward, we have 2 forwards and 2 backwards. At an early age, cuckoo chicks can climb out of the nest with their specialized feet before they can even fly!

We are distinct from our eastern yellow-billed cuckoo cousins. We don’t see them much. They arrive in North America and start their families earlier than we do and prefer a different style of woodland home. Great mountains and deserts separate our nesting grounds but a few of us occasionally meet up in parts of Texas and New Mexico for family reunions.

All yellow-billed cuckoos are about a foot long and weigh two ounces. We are slightly bigger than our eastern kin. So are our eggs. We like to say that western yellow-billed cuckoo shells are thicker because we have to be tougher. Which is true, we are facing tough times. Over the years, much of our preferred nesting grounds in western North America have been lost or degraded and, as a consequence, our numbers have dwindled. Fewer western yellow-billed cuckoos live in the United States each year!

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed our species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This means that people will work together to ensure we have homes in the U.S. when we return each year to start our families. We live in the U.S. for only a few months in the spring and summer. People don’t know much about what we do when we fly south for the winter. But we are always happy to return.

(Learn more at http://go.usa.gov/9fsA . @usfwsSacArea #cuckooconservation.)