During a visit the other morning to the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve near my home on the outskirts of Decatur, I got my best view ever of a yellow-billed cuckoo, one of Georgia’s most elusive — and peculiar — songbirds. It appeared almost directly in front of me and I was able to observe it through my binoculars for nearly a minute before it hopped back into the jungle-like growth.
The yellow-billed cuckoo is a common spring nester in Georgia, but most birdwatchers probably get only fleeting glimpses of it. Furtive, retiring, and secretive by nature, the slender brown bird with a long tail and yellow, down-curved bill spends most of its days silently resting and feeding in the thick foliage of trees, shrubs and tangled thickets, often along a stream. Rarely does it perch in the open.
“Cuckoos,” says the website Birds of North America Online, “are known worldwide for their bizarre haunts and habits, and the yellow-billed cuckoo is no exception.”
Another surprise: Shortly after I saw the cuckoo, I heard its strange, rattling call that goes something like ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp. In fact, said the late Georgia ornithologist Thomas Burleigh, “To many a casual observer, the yellow-billed cuckoo is a voice rather than a bird.” (In case you’re wondering, that sound is nothing like a cuckoo clock’s.)
Some birders say that the yellow-billed cuckoo calls more frequently on cloudy days, which has earned it the moniker “rain crow.”
But the bird’s strangest habit may be its extremely rapid breeding season, which peaks this month. From egg-laying to fledgling of its young takes only about 17 days. After arriving in April from winter grounds as far south as Argentina, a cuckoo pair build a nest of twigs and sticks. The female lays an average of four eggs that hatch nine to 11 days later. Astoundingly, the nestlings’ feathers burst forth within two hours after hatching. Within a couple of days the babies are able to take to the air.
Sometimes, a female cuckoo may deposit her eggs in another bird’s nest, leaving them in the care of surrogate parents.
Ecologically, the yellow-billed cuckoo is one of Georgia’s most important birds — one of the few species that readily eat spiny, hairy caterpillars, including destructive tent caterpillars. Unfortunately, the bird is declining in much of its range because of habitat destruction and other problems.
IN THE SKY: The moon will be first quarter on the night of May 17, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Venus and Jupiter are very low in the west and Saturn is in the east just after dark. Jupiter will appear near the moon on Sunday night. Mercury and Mars can’t be easily seen right now.