My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

The black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is a New World species in the Cuculidae (cuckoo) family. It is very similar and overlaps in range with the closely related yellow-billed cuckoo. A distinguishing characteristic of family Cuculidae is laying eggs in the nests of other birds. Although many cuckoos are obligate brood parasites, C. erythropthalmus often incubate their own chicks.

Standard Measurements

Length 280–320 mm (11–12.6 in)
Mass 45–55 g (1.6–1.9 oz)
Wingspan 440 mm (17.5 in)
Wing 132.9–140.9 mm (5.23–5.55 in)
Tail 147.4–159.8 mm (5.80–6.29 in)
Culmen 20.2–23.9 mm (0.80–0.94 in)
Tarsus 21.1–24.1 mm (0.83–0.95 in)


Adults have a long, graduated brown tail and a black, slightly downcurved bill. The head and upper parts are brown and the underparts are white. The feet are zygodactylous. Juveniles are drabber and may contain some rufous coloration on the wing. The adults have a narrow, red orbital ring while the juveniles’ is yellow. Black-billed cuckoo chicks have white, sparsely-distributed, sheath-like down that contrasts heavily with their black skin. They also have complex, creamy-colored structures on their mouth and tongue, which may appear like warts or some type of parasitic infection however they are normal for the species.

Black-billed cuckoo may be found in a variety of habitats. They are most commonly found around the edges of mature deciduous or mixed forests and much less frequently in coniferous forests. They can also be found in much younger growth forests with a lot of shrubs and thickets. Wetlands with a lot of alder and willow are another prime location to see them. Lastly, they can also inhabit more open areas such as abandoned farmland, golf courses and residential parks. Whatever the habitat may be, they are usually quite well hidden and tend to stick to the edges of these habitats. The chosen habitat must also have a water source nearby such as a lake, river, marsh or pond. On their wintering grounds in South America, they can inhabit tropical rainforests, deciduous or semiopen woodlands as well as scrub forests.

When breeding, the species is distributed in wooded areas across much of the United States, east of the Rockies. Their range just barely extends into North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They are not present to the south of those states when breeding. They can also be found in southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. They’re also present in the maritime provinces of Prince Edward Island, eastern New Brunswick and western Nova Scotia. When migrating in spring and fall, they can also be seen in southern United States as well as all of Central America. They migrate to northwestern South America in the fall, where they will spend the winter. Although they are mainly an eastern North American species, there have been confirmed reports of them in British Columbia, Washington and California. The species is also a rare vagrant to western Europe and Greenland in fall.

These birds forage in shrubs or trees. They mainly eat insects, especially tent caterpillars, but also some snails, eggs of other birds and berries. It is known to beat caterpillars against a branch before consuming them to remove some of the indigestible hairs. Remaining hairs accumulate in the stomach until the bird sheds the stomach lining and disgorges a pellet in a manner similar to owls.

Invasive gypsy moths may also serve as an important food source for black-billed cuckoos. Most birds cannot consume gypsy moth caterpillars because of their hair-like setae however, cuckoos can consume them because of their ability to shed their abdominal lining. During outbreak years of these insects, the abundance of black-billed cuckoos increased on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes. This increase is not due higher reproductive rate because then the black-billed cuckoo populations would only increase the next year. The abundance is higher because the cuckoos flock towards the outbreak areas. This is supported by the fact that cuckoo abundance is actually lower than average in the areas surrounding the outbreaks, suggesting a large influx of the birds towards outbreaks. They are able to find these areas due to post-migratory nomadic behavior. Once reaching their breeding ground, they search vast expanses of forest for the most suitable breeding area, in this case, where there is an abundance of food. Similar patterns have also been observed during outbreaks of tent caterpillars, fall webworms and cicadas.

When they are a couple days old, the chicks can make a buzzing sound that resembles an insect and a few days later, they can make a low barking call when disturbed. The call of this species is 2-5 sets of “coo” notes that are high-pitched, rapid and repetitive. There is a slight pause between each set. The phonetics are often written “coo-coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo-coo, …”. Adults usually call during the day when breeding however they begin calling at night, in the middle of summer.

Prior to copulation, the male lands on a branch near the female with an insect in its beak. The female will then flick her tail up and down intermittently for about 15 minutes while the male sits there motionless. The male then mounts the female, with the insect still in its mouth, and the two copulate. The male then either eats the food item or gives it to the female for her to eat.

Females usually lay 2-3 blue-green eggs, sometimes 4 or 5, which may take on a marbled appearance after a couple days of incubation. Adults incubate the eggs for 10–13 days. The young black-billed cuckoos, as well as others cuckoos in the genus Coccyzus, leave the nest 7–9 days after hatching, which is quite young when compared to other birds. The young are not able to fly right away however they can still move quite large distances by jumping between tree branches. During this period, they are more vulnerable to predators because they cannot fly away as the adults could. Due to this vulnerability, the juveniles can slowly assume an erect posture to conceal themselves. They stretch their neck out and point their bill upwards, while keeping their eyes open and remaining motionless. If the threat starts to back off, the cuckoo will relax its pose.

Outbreaks of tent caterpillars can have a positive effect on black-billed cuckoo populations. During these outbreaks, the adults begin laying eggs earlier in the season. They can also produce larger clutches and may even increase their parasitic activities.

Black-billed cuckoos are known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. They can lay eggs in the nests of other black-billed cuckoos, called conspecific parasitism, or in the nests of other songbirds, known as interspecific parasitism. The females will usually parasitize nests in the afternoon because the nests are often unguarded at this time. This cuckoo species is thought to have a laying interval of about a day so if two eggs show up in a nest on the same day, you can rightfully assume that one is a parasitic egg.

Many cuckoos are obligate brood parasites, meaning they only lay eggs in other birds’ nests and never take care of their own young. Birds that do this, such as the common cuckoo or the brown-headed cowbird, lay relatively small eggs because their expected hosts are usually smaller birds. Cuckoos in the genus Coccyzus, lay relatively large eggs even though they still parasitize smaller birds. Yellow warblers are the smallest birds recorded caring for black-billed cuckoo eggs. In experiments, these wood warblers were found to accept the cuckoo eggs 63% of the time even though their own eggs are only a quarter of the size. Even with the size difference, the warbler parent is often still able to raise the cuckoo as long as it can provide the chick with sufficient nutrition and incubation.

On to my photos:

These photos were shot while walking home from Creekside Park, near my apartment during the spring of 2015.

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus


This is number 190 in my photo life list, only 160 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



16 responses

  1. You are getting on so well with that list, well done.

    March 18, 2016 at 11:45 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! I keep plugging away at the list, maybe some day I’ll finish it.

      March 18, 2016 at 4:15 pm

  2. Well done Jerry! These are beautiful shots, too.

    March 18, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare!

      March 18, 2016 at 11:38 pm

  3. I agree, those are nice shots. Interesting how the tent caterpillars affect the cukoo’s numbers. I’ve never thought much about that but it makes perfect sense.

    March 18, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    • Thanks Allen! I didn’t know that any birds ate either the tent worm or the gypsy moth caterpillars, so it was good news to learn this.

      March 18, 2016 at 11:40 pm

  4. Excellent images of this Black-billed Cuckoo. I wonder what the other birds do when they find one of their young ones is not at all like the others, either in looks or size, or both.

    March 18, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    • Thank you very much! You’d think that the adults of the other species raising the “wrong” chicks would realize it, but they don’t. It’s the same with brown headed cowbird chicks.

      March 18, 2016 at 11:42 pm

  5. Excellent shots, Jerry! I always enjoy reading about new birds and the cuckoo’s breeding cycle is fascinating. We have channel-billed cuckoos here and they look very different to these rather pretty birds. What a great achievement to have recorded so many birds already.

    March 19, 2016 at 1:39 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! I’m learning all kinds of new things about birds since I started this project, which makes it even more worthwhile. I’m almost two thirds of the way through the list, but they’ll get harder to find as I get down near the end.

      March 19, 2016 at 10:34 am

  6. Such a serene-looking bird. I usually don’t read all of the descriptive material, but did this time. I’ll be stunning my friends and family now with my thoughts on indigestible caterpillar hairs.


    March 20, 2016 at 11:22 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! It’s amazing what adaptations nature comes up with that allow one critter to eat another.

      March 20, 2016 at 7:07 pm

  7. Beautiful photos of the cuckoo, Jerry. I remember tent caterpillars from back east, and have seen the devastation they can do. Fortunately I have seen none here in our area, although it sounds liek they have been sighted up around Portland and north into Washington.

    March 20, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! I’m sorry to hear that the tent caterpillars have been seen anywhere out west, they’ll probably spread up and down the coast.

      March 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm

  8. Good photos. congrats!

    March 21, 2016 at 8:23 am

    • Thank you very much!

      March 21, 2016 at 8:30 am