One of the latest migratory birds to arrive in Arizona is the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, winging northward all the way from South America – Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
They are common summer nesters across the Eastern states but more rare in the West, although still found right here in the Verde Valley. They typically arrive in mid-June during the hottest part of summer. Presumably because that’s when their favorite food resources are available - tent caterpillars and cicadas.
They also eat other hairy caterpillars, lizards, frogs, berries and fruit. Like their relative the roadrunner, both in the cuckoo family, they are very secretive. And unlike smaller nervous-type birds that constantly flick tail, wings and hop from branch to branch, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can sit completely still for long periods of time.
That’s why the bird is difficult to find. You must be very patient looking for Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Once while researching breeding behavior of this species, I sat motionless in sight of a nest for over an hour until finally the bird stealthily sneaked into the nest.
Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly large with a length of 12 inches and wingspan of 18 inches. Their coloring is somewhat nondescript as they are soft brown on the back, white on the breast and a black and white barring underneath the tail. When they fly you can see a rufous (brownish-orange) color on their primaries.
The most noticeable part of this bird is its song. It is easier to hear the song of this secretive cuckoo than actually find it. The song is a sharp guttural staccato that ends with a slow drifting downward coo, something like: kak-kak-kak-kak-kak cowl, cowl, cowl, cowl.
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo must have large leafy trees for nesting like cottonwoods, willows, velvet ash, and Arizona sycamores. When less suitable habitat is available they will nest in tamarisk, and mesquite. That’s why the Verde River corridor is an excellent place to find cuckoos especially in the rich, cottonwood-willow gallery forests.
The yellow-billed cuckoo is quite common in Eastern states but rapidly losing ground in the West due to the destruction and degradation of riparian corridors - the shady habitat along our rivers and creeks. It has been listed as a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act, hence are becoming more rare and harder to find. But with patience and a keen ear you have a good chance of finding them.
This is a great bird to look for on a hot summer afternoon, especially if you are a birder who likes the birds to come to you. Find a nice, shady place along a river or creek next to a big cottonwood tree - places like Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Page Springs Fish Hatchery, Montezuma Well picnic area.
Look for a cottonwood tree, preferably with tent caterpillars making their webby tents. Sit down and just listen. Listen for that loud “kak-kak-kak-kak-kak” -- then a softer, trailing “cowl, cowl, cowl.”
If you live on the river, try offering mealworms to entice them in or even gather some tent caterpillars. Place them on a tray and hang the feeder high in a cottonwood tree. Sit back and watch. You might just catch a glimpse of this rare bird.