Black-billed cuckoo. Wolfgang Wander


Did you know cuckoos nest in our area? In fact, we have two different types, the Black-billed (photo by Wolfgang Wander) and the Yellow-billed. However, they are seldom reported. At least not in recent years.  Up until this summer, I’ve only heard or seen them a couple of times in the almost 30 years I’ve lived in New England. Maybe I’ve just stopped looking for them. Surprisingly, this summer I’m hearing them routinely. It prompted me to do a little research. Only five sightings of Black-billed Cuckoos, were reported in Oxford County between 2015 and 2019 on eBird, an international database. Yet this year, there have been seven reports in May and mid-June alone. Yellow-billed Cuckoos have also been reported, but because they are not as common, more confirmation is needed.

Cuckoos come to our area from South America in search of caterpillars. The Black-billed Cuckoo, in particular, seems to follow outbreaks of pests. Pests that are often avoided by other caterpillar-eating birds. Tent Caterpillars, for instance, have hairs that stick into the tender skin of a bird’s mouth, throat and stomach. Black-billed Cuckoos eat these with relish and can clean out a nest containing hundreds of caterpillars in minutes. To avoid blockages, the Black-billed Cuckoo can then slough off the surface layer of its throat and stomach and regurgitate it along with the noxious spines.

Unfortunately, cuckoo’s numbers have dropped steeply. This may be because we have pesticides that are so effective at controlling pests like Gypsy Moths and Tent Caterpillars. In some states out west, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo has completely disappeared, and they are seldom seen and reported here in Maine. Black-billed Cuckoos range further north than their Yellow-billed cousins, but their numbers are dropping too and are considered to be at risk for extinction.

Watch for the Black-billed Cuckoo in the dense undergrowth of mixed forests. They seem to prefer waterways and edges along forest openings. They lurk and skulk in heavy cover and are hard to see. So, your best bet is to learn their vocalizations. Here’s a link for the Black-billed Cuckoo sounds:

So, why have we seen so many reports in our area this summer? Have they come in larger numbers because they’ve detected increases in their favorite caterpillars? Who knows. Maybe they’ve been here all along, but now I’m just paying closer attention. In any event, keep an ear open for the “cu-cu-cu-cu” calls of these caterpillar-eating cuckoos.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To learn more visit To contact James, send your emails to [email protected]

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