Featured Bird: Cuckoos (Not Just on Clocks!)

In Birds by couchiching

Those who have read this column over the years will know that my father was a clergyman. When I was very young, he carried out his pastoral duties in a small rural farming community. I was always very eager, when appropriate, to accompany my parents when they visited parishioners. I loved to see the animals, and the workings of the farm.

I also was delighted by the farm houses, because in those days, most had a cuckoo clock. I was fascinated by them. How did that little bird know to come out of his house at precisely three o’clock and sing to me? I was also thrilled, with a little help, to pull the long chains which wound up the clock mechanisms. Little did I know that there was a real bird called a Cuckoo!

“Little did I know that there was a real bird called a Cuckoo!”

The memories of those cuckoo clock visits were brought home to me a few weeks ago when a friend and I were out on the Carden Alvar doing a little birding and photography. I say, “little”, because we had had a very uneventful morning.

We had stopped to talk to some fellow birders. Soon after telling us that this was their first trip to Carden, one of the gentlemen called out, “Cuckoo”! We rushed out of the car to find a beautiful Black -billed Cuckoo feeding on caterpillars in a small shrub near the fence. Sensing there could be danger, he flew across the road and into another bush, hiding himself in the dense foliage. He stayed just long enough for me to fire off a couple of shots and then he flew off to a cedar on the edge of the bush. Upon landing he let out his beautiful call, “Cuckoo…cuckoo…cuckoo”!

Cuckoos may be found in a variety of habitats including mixed forests and young growth forests, shrubs, thickets, and wetlands with alders and willows. Their principle foods include insects, berries and eggs of other birds. Caterpillars are a mainstay of their diet when they are available and the birds tend to follow tent caterpillar outbreaks. Most birds frown on caterpillars as they cannot consume them for the setae, or hair-like fibres covering their bodies. Cuckoos however can. They will beat caterpillars against a branch to remove some of the indigestible hairs. They also shed their stomach lining, dispelling it in a pellet form to further remove the accumulated hairs.

Black-billed Cuckoos are monogamous. Nests are built in thickets close to the ground, in much the same habitat as warblers, where the female will lay 2-4 blue-green eggs. They are also brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, including warblers. Eggs are incubated for about two weeks and the young will vacate the nest after a week or ten days to be fed by their parents until they are able to forage for themselves. Can you imagine a little Yellow warbler trying to feed a very large ravenous young Cuckoo?

It is getting a little late in the season to hear Cuckoos calling so plan now to get out in the field next spring during their courtship and breeding season. In the meantime you will have to settle for their hourly calls from a clock!

David A. Homer is a volunteer and on the Board of Directors at The Couchiching Conservancy, a non-profit land trust dedicated to protect nature for future generations (including Cuckoos).