Yellow-Billed Cuckoo by Gene Koziara
Forecast: Slight chance of rain crows

(published 10-9-18)

Twenty years ago last month, I witnessed my first yellow-billed cuckoo. Saw it well, too, at Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn.

A few things made that experience especially rewarding. First, I found the cuckoo all by myself. It’s satisfying when that happens, even though it was pure luck. I happened to glimpse the bird as it flew to a tree.

Secondly, at the time of discovery, yellow-billed cuckoo was like a mythical species to me. As a serious birder for about four years, I was beginning to wonder if cuckoos really exist.

Well, they do, and not just yellow-billed. There’s also the similar black-billed cuckoo, which in our region is even more elusive. Adding to the challenge is that both birds are declining. Black-billed cuckoo, in fact, is listed as a threatened species in Illinois.

Cuckoos are secretive, preferring leafy trees and prone to long periods of inactivity. Birding guru Pete Dunne describes them as “slothlike.” Even if you locate a cuckoo it can be hard to observe the whole bird.

My lifetime cuckoo sightings total about 20, yellow-billed and black-billed combined. Amazingly, three of those sightings (all yellow-billed) were in my yard, the last coming in 2008.

I haven’t seen a cuckoo of any kind in 2018, and time is about up. Cuckoos are now migrating to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Rain Crow IPA
Courtesy of Wren House
Brewing Co.

Today’s column was only partly inspired by my lucky sighting two decades ago. The other trigger was Rain Crow IPA, a new beer bearing the colloquial name for cuckoo, which according to folklore vocalizes before it rains.

I’m keeping an eye out for Rain Crow IPA at Binny’s. For now, however, it’s a western thing, introduced in July by Audubon Arizona in collaboration with several craft breweries in Tucson and Phoenix. The brew calls attention to water conservation needs and the importance of healthy rivers.

The increasingly scarce western race of yellow-billed cuckoo, depicted on the Rain Crow IPA can, depends on riparian woodlands. A sustainable water supply, Audubon says, is essential to the species as well as the region’s other birds, wildlife, communities and economies. Brewers clearly have a strong vested interest, too.

I was indeed fortunate to see my own rain crow that day at Churchill Woods. Cuckoos are quiet during fall migration; they give no vocal clues. In the spring and summer, though, listening for cuckoos is our best chance of finding them.

“They are shadows living in a world of shadow, and we identify far more cuckoos by call than by plumage,” said Eirik A.T. Blom, writing for Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Just don’t expect to hear your grandmother’s cuckoo clock. The birds do not sound like that. But with a little practice you can learn what to listen for and tell our two local cuckoo species apart. To hear them, go to All About Birds, the online resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

As a family, cuckoos are slender birds—about the size of a mourning dove but less plump—with long tails. Gray-to-brownish upperparts, white below. When you spot one, your job is to ID the species. As the names indicate, bill color is a key field mark. Other distinctions are the red eye ring on the black-billed and differing underside tail patterns—bold white spots on yellow-billed, faint white bars on black-billed. 

On more tip: If you see a cuckoo in flight, pay attention to the wings. If the feathers show a lot of rufous (reddish brown), you’re looking at a yellow-billed. Dunne calls it the “cinnamon-winged cuckoo.”

There is a third cuckoo species that in North America is found only in southern Florida. At least that’s the rumor. I’ve been chasing the mangrove cuckoo for many years without success. It currently tops my Most Wanted list and I envy anyone who has seen one. If that includes you, please don’t tell me.

Some birds just take time. Eventually we find them, or they find us. My first yellow-billed cuckoo was like that, and last year a worm-eating warbler finally crossed my path. But since I don’t live in Florida, mangrove cuckoo may well be a lifetime pursuit.

That’s OK. In birding, anticipation is a positive force! I will not let a cuckoo drive me crazy.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.