Carolyn Gritzmaker Indian Trail Master Naturalist
The rain crow was calling the other morning, its low rolling song coming from the ash tree out front. True to its name, there was a light rain shower that morning. But the yellow-billed cuckoo(Coccyzus americanus), commonly known as the rain crow, will sing in all kinds of weather. Its song is just more obvious on those still, cloudy days when most other birds are quiet.
The yellow-billed cuckoo is one of the most common summer birds in Ellis and Navarro counties. It can be found in open woodlands, in the dense tangles of brushy roadsides, and in willow thickets along streams and around stock tanks. It is a slender, graceful bird, generally rather shy, and slips quietly through the foliage of trees and brush. Seldom seen perched in a conspicuous place, the cuckoo seems to prefer shady retreats where it will sit motionless for long periods, or move about quietly in search of its prey.
One of the best ways to see a yellow-billed cuckoo is to visit those trees whose foliage is being eaten by webworms. Cuckoos eat great numbers of caterpillars, and the webworm is a particular favorite. They also eat many kinds of insects, small fruits and sometimes small frogs and lizards.
Grayish-brown above and white below, the yellow-billed cuckoo is distinguished from the black-billed cuckoo(Coccyzus erythropthalmus) by the rufous or copper color on its wings. Its lower mandible or bill is yellow, while the upper mandible is gray. It has a long tail that is black on the underside, with white spots. At 11 to 12 inches long, the cuckoo is about the size of the mourning dove(Zenaidura macroura) and might, at first, be mistaken for one in flight, but the shape of its tail and the white markings on the underside are different from those of the dove.
The cuckoo’s nest is a rather flimsy affair, built on a horizontal limb of a small tree or bush. Often the eggs can be seen through the bottom of the nest. The female will usually lay 3 or 4 pale blue-green eggs which will hatch in about two weeks. When the young are about a week old they leave their nest and climb agilely about the nesting tree for another two weeks until they learn to fly, Unlike the European cuckoo, New World cuckoos will only rarely lay an egg in the nest of other birds.
Yellow-billed cuckoos arrive here in late April and depart in mid-October. Listen for their song: a long, low series of “cuks”, ending with a slowed “keow-keow-keow”. They sing more often than you might think.