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Yellow-billed cuckoo (Western population)

Photo of Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Scientific name: Coccyzus americanus  

Status: Threatened

Critical Habitat: None designated in Oregon

Listing Activity: The yellow-billed cuckoo in the western United States was accorded candidate status in July 2001.  On October 3, 2013, the Western U.S. Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the yellow-billed cuckoo was proposed as a threatened species under the ESA and was subsequently listed on October 3, 2014. On June 27, 2018, we acknowledged a petition to delist the western DPS had significant information that the action may be warranted.  A species status assessment is under way and findings anticipated in 2020.

Potential Range Map

  • Historical Status and Current Trends

    Historically, the yellow-billed cuckoo bred throughout much of North America. Available data suggests that within the last 50 years the species' distribution west of the Rocky Mountains has declined substantially. Loss of streamside habitat is regarded as the primary reason for the population decline. The species was probably never common in Oregon. Historical records for the state show that breeding cuckoos were most often sighted in willow bottoms along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers on the west side and Grande Ronde and Snake Rivers on the east side.  There are currently only a couple cuckoo sightings annually in Oregon and any sightings in May and early June, or in non-riparian habitat, are likely migrants.

    Habitat Associations

    Yellow-billed cuckoos in Oregon and much of the west breed primarily in large stands of dense willow and cottonwood habitat in river floodplains.

    Description and Life History

    The yellow-billed cuckoo is a medium sized brown bird, about 12 inches long and weighing about two ounces. The bird's most notable physical features are a long boldly patterned black and white tail and an elongated down-curved bill which is yellow on the bottom. Yellow-billed cuckoos are migratory; historically, cuckoos arrived in Oregon as early as mid-May and flew south to their wintering grounds in September. Although many species of cuckoos are brood parasites (laying their eggs in other birds' nests), the yellow-billed cuckoo builds a nest and raises its own young. The distinct call of the cuckoo has been described as sounding like "cow, cow, cow, cow, cow, cow..." ending in a series of clucks that become slower and run down the scale. The yellow-billed cuckoo is sometimes called the "raincrow" or "stormcrow", because it is often heard before summer rainstorms.

    Food

    The bird primarily eats large insects including caterpillars and cicadas and occasionally, small frogs and lizards. Breeding coincides with the emergence of cicadas and tent caterpillars. Tent caterpillars and fall web worms appear to be important food sources in Oregon. 

    Reasons for Decline

    Available data suggests that the yellow-billed cuckoo's range and population  have declined substantially across much of the western United States over the last 50 years. In Oregon, cuckoos, although never common, have become even more rare with the loss and fragmentation of floodplain forests along the Willamette, the Columbia and other larger rivers. The last confirmed breeding records in Oregon were in the 1940s. More recent observations have not been confirmed as breeding and may be individual birds or migrants.

    The greatest threat to the species has been reported to be loss of riparian habitat. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the cuckoo's riparian habitat has been lost. Habitat loss in the west is attributed to agriculture, dams and river flow management (i.e., reduced seasonal flooding needed to support development of riparian vegetation), overgrazing and competition from exotic plants.

    Conservation Measures

    In 1998, we received a petition to list the western yellow-billed cuckoo as an endangered species. We concluded that the western yellow-billed cuckoo is a distinct population segment (DPS) of the yellow-billed cuckoo in North America. We listed the western DPS of yellow-billed cuckoo as a threatened species in 2014.   The Service is currently reviewing the status of the species in response to a petition to delist the western DPS of yellow-billed cuckoo.

    We will continue to encourage state and federal agencies, as well as other parties, to give consideration to the species in environmental planning.  Activities which alter or destroy riparian habitat are of particular concern, including unmanaged cattle grazing that contributes to the loss of sub-canopy vegetation and cottonwood regeneration.  Conservation actions that restore flood plain connectivity and riverine function and preserve riparian habitat will be instrumental in recovery of yellow-billed cuckoos throughout the west.  

    Links and References

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. 12-month finding for a petition to list the yellow- billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in the western continental United States. FR 66: 38611-38626.

    Other yellow-billed cuckoo references can be found in ECOS.  

     


    Last updated: January 8, 2020

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