BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO(Coccyzus erythropthalmus)

The Black-billed Cuckoo is a long, slender bird with white under parts and brown tops. The downcurved bill, as the English name implies, is black, and there’s a red ring around the eye, as the Latin name implies. In other words this bird could have been named the ‘red-eyed cuckoo’ because of that feature, just like the red-eyed vireo. The black-billed cuckoo measures around 30 cm (12 in.) and the tail takes up about half that length. Cuckoos have two backward-facing toes instead of one, which allows them easier foraging in shrubs and trees.

The English name ‘Cuckoo’ for this bird is an onomatopoeia for its call. The Latin genus name ‘Coccyzus’ is from ancient Greek and means ‘cuckoo’, and ‘erythrophtalmus’ is Greek for ‘red eye’.

This cuckoo is a brood parasite, like many in its family, but not an ‘obligate’ one. Some of its targets include its own species, and American robins, Chipping sparrows and Grey catbirds. This bird is called ‘cuckoo’ because of its call, which can be heard at night or before the rain (giving the species the name of ‘rain crow’).

The diet of black-billed cuckoos mainly consists of caterpillars, including large ones. They shake the spiny ones to try and remove their spines, but they still end up with spines in their stomachs. They will shed the lining of their stomachs to get rid of them. Because of this diet, black-billed cuckoos are vulnerable to pesticides, and their population is declining.

Their habitat is varied – mature deciduous forests, wetlands with alders, or young forests with lots of thick shrubs. The black-billed cuckoo is easier to hear than see. The breeding range of this bird species is east of the Rockies in the south part of Canada and the northern part of the USA. They migrate in the northwest region of South America for the winter. In spite of breeding on PEI its occurrence is rare. There was one sighting at Basin Head in the fall of 2005. The population levels fluctuate with the availability of prey.

Black-billed-cuckoo - West Meadow Beach, NY - photo by Wolfgang Wander
Black-billed-cuckoo – West Meadow Beach, NY – photo by Wolfgang Wander