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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The distinctive call of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo foretells of summer storms

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) is a weather forecaster, of sorts, in folklore.

The secretive bird is heard, but seldom observed, calling from thick brush and woodlands during the summer. Its stuttering call: ka ka ka ka ka kow kow kow, kow-kowp, kowp, kowp, slows towards its end, and is audible at a great distance.

The Yellow-Billed Cuckoo (Photo by Garth McElroy, courtesy of Audubon Society)

Since the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is often heard on hot, humid afternoons, as if to foretell pop up rainstorms, it has earned the moniker of “rain crow.”

Fairly common throughout the state except for far eastern Kentucky, this migratory bird avoids extensive tracks of closed-canopy forest. It is most numerous is semi-open habitats where thickets of brush and young trees are intermixed with woodlots and corridors of woodlands along streams, fence lines and highways.

Range and Distribution

In the Lower 48 states its breeding range has contracted and now the bird is most common from the Great Lakes states, west to Nebraska, south to Texas, east to Florida, and up the Atlantic Coast to southern New York.

A summer bird in Kentucky, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo arrives in late May to early June and departs by late September. They migrate to Mexico, Central America, and may travel as far south as northern Argentina.

In recent decades this species has declined throughout its range, is now absent from some western states or endangered.

Yellow-Billed Cuckoo painting by John James Audubon)

Size and Coloration

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a tall bird with long tail feathers, tipped in white.

Adults are brown to grayish above with a white breast and curved bill that is black above, with yellow lower mandible.

There may be a yellow to whitish ring around the eye, and in flight wing tips appear cinnamon in color.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a member of family Cuculidae, which includes the roadrunner, a fast-running ground cuckoo with a long tail and crest, found in the southwesters U.S. and Mexico, and the anis, a large black bird that resembles a raven.

Food Habits

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo forages through shrubs and trees, grabbing insects from foliage and branches and may fly or hover momentarily to catch an insect in the air.

Feeding heavily on caterpillars when available, they also consume cicadas, beetles, grasshoppers, and katydids, only occasionally small lizards, frogs, eggs of other birds, berries and small fruits.

The congregate for a feeding frenzy when insects emerge in mass.

Nesting and Reproduction

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

In courtship, the male feeds the female.

Their nest may be in a tree, shrub, or tangle of vines, usually about three to 20 feet above the ground.

The nest is built by both sexes, and is a small, loosely-made platform of twigs and stems, with thin lining of grass, pine needles, leaves, and other materials.

The female lays two to four eggs, sometimes five.

The pale bluish green eggs are incubated by both sexes for nine to 11 days. The chicks, fed by both parents, are able to climb about with agility in about a week, and are able to fly in about three weeks.

Rarely do they raise two clutches in one season.

On hot summer afternoons listen closely for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. You’ve probably heard its distinctive calls before, but could spend a lifetime outdoors and never see one up close.

The “rain crow” knows…. stormy weather is coming!

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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