A Tale of Two Cuckoos

Tim HealyBird News, Bird Sightings, Birding, Chase, eBird, Migration, Photography, Rarities, Trip ReportsLeave a Comment

The cosmopolitan family Cuculidae contains some of the world’s weirdest and most wonderful species of birds. I am not shy about my fondness for cuckoos, and over the years I have enjoyed a number of incredible encounters with this tribe during my travels around the globe. Fantastic creatures like Greater Roadrunner, Squirrel Cuckoo, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Pheasant Cuckoo, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, Greater Ani, Pheasant Coucal, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo have played roles in some of my most memorable birding days to date. This year, of course, international expeditions have not been an option for most birders. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of some cuckoo related excitement closer to home in recent months. Two separate sagas, both involving wayward migrants in unusual circumstances, have quickly risen to the top of my 2020 birding highlights. 

Rescuing a Neotropical Migrant

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my schoolyard has proven to be a surprisingly productive site for watching morning flight following nights of heavy migration. I’ve added a variety of unexpected species to my work patch list over the years, but this fall brought one of biggest shockers so far. When I was departing from the premises on a Friday afternoon in early October, I was amazed to see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on the ground just outside the front doors. The bird was lying below a window on the southern-facing side of the building. Since this species typically migrates nocturnally, it likely collided with the structure during repositioning flight at some point after my pre-class stakeout. I quietly approached the downed bird and confirmed that it was still alive, but clearly stunned from the impact.

I gently swaddled the injured cuckoo in a spare shirt I happened to have in my bag. It perked up and squirmed a little in response to being handled, showing that it wasn’t out for the count just yet. I uncovered the bird to see if it was well enough to fly off, but it sat calmly in my open hands and began closing its eyes again. As a small crowd began to gather, attracted by the spectacle, the cuckoo weakly fluttered to a bush a few feet away, where it resumed squatting in a fluffed up resting position. It was clear to me that this individual would not survive without medical intervention.

I scooped the bird up and lightly wrapped it in my shirt once more, prompting some soft croaking vocalizations of protest. A few of my assembled coworkers procured a cardboard box for me to safely transport the patient to rehab, and the school custodians even presented me with an old birdcage in the hopes of being helpful. A short walk later, I was sitting on the NYC subway with a boxed cuckoo at my feet. I can’t help but wonder whether or not that was a first for the MTA. I noticed that my companion began to wake up a bit on the journey across town, warily looking around its container rather than sitting completely silent and still. I took that as another good sign.

I arrived at the doorstep of the Wild Bird Fund, New York City’s only dedicated wildlife rehabilitation center, to find that I was not alone in my rescue efforts. The display window was full of bags and boxes, each containing a window strike victim who had been picked up off the pavement that day. In addition to my cuckoo, over 100 birds were brought into the facility on Friday alone, with another 100 plus salvaged the following Saturday. These totals don’t even account for the hundreds of others who were found too late to be saved. A combination of favorable winds and poor morning visibility during the peak of fall migration had resulted in a pulse of southbound, low-flying birds, which produced building collisions throughout the city. WBF staff had their work cut out for them that weekend, toiling through the night to provide care for their tiny patients.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo was one of the lucky ones. I was hopeful but apprehensive when I left it in the capable hands of the rehabbers, because I know that even birds who survive the initial collision with a window often deteriorate quickly within the first day or so. A Twitter post the following morning featured a photo of my friend looking alert, proving that it had survived the first night and bringing me some optimistic relief. Staff reached out to me a few weeks later with a detailed update, informing me that the cuckoo had gradually recovered its appetite and was now feeding itself and regaining weight. Due to flight feather damage sustained in the crash, it will need to remain in long term care at Tri-State Bird Rescue while the feathers regrow. While I wish that this traveler had made its journey to South America without any issues, I was nevertheless happy for the opportunity to help a bird that would have been otherwise doomed. If nothing else, it was a unique chance to get up close and personal with a species I adore! Hopefully its condition continues to improve!

Chasing a Trans-Atlantic Vagrant

With the arrival of November came news of yet another cuckoo who’d run afoul of complications on its migratory journey. In this case it wasn’t injury, but rather disorientation, somehow landing the hapless traveler on the wrong continent. A young Common Cuckoo, which ought to be en route between Europe and Africa right about now, was reported at Snake Den Farm in Rhode Island. This is the archetypal cuckoo whose call inspired both the famous clocks and the entire family’s name, and it is widespread across the Old World from Iberia to Siberia. Though strays to the isles of western Alaska are nearly annual, the species has only been recorded twice before in the Lower 48 (in Massachusetts and California) and twice more in Canada (in Quebec and British Columbia). This was a rarity of the highest caliber, an absolute pipe dream of a bird for the Eastern Seaboard. I could not miss out on this fantastic find.

I was unable to make a drop-everything chase on the day news of the bird’s discovery broke. My already high default FOMO setting was turned up to 11 by my love of all things cuckoo, and the stream of staggeringly gorgeous close-up portraits posted by my friends only increased the anticipation. To the delight of birders everywhere, however, the cuckoo was kind enough to linger at the farm for more than a week. Jacqi and I decided to make a short, socially distanced day trip up to Johnston, Rhode Island to search for this mega-rare vagrant. The diffuse crowd of masked birders was immediately apparent upon our arrival at the farm’s parking lot, and as we began walking out the path in their direction I spotted our quarry winging its way directly towards us. It settled conspicuously on a nearby bush, deliberately scanning the area with a wild-eyed expression before plunging to the ground and snapping up a caterpillar. If only all twitches were so instantly successful!

Studying the behavior of a new bird is always a rewarding experience, especially at a stakeout when the lifer is the primary focus rather than just a lone tally in a wave of new additions. The Common Cuckoo may be the default cuculid throughout much of the world, but for me it was a wholly unfamiliar creature. It was not nearly as retiring as our American species, readily posting up atop prominent perches to survey the farm fields for prey. It was also noticeably larger and considerably more energetic. In flight, it moved swiftly and low to the ground with rapid wingbeats before swooping up to an elevated vantage point. This active hunting behavior, combined with its pointed wings and long tail, called to mind predatory birds like hawks and shrikes. The comparison was further enhanced by the deadly prowess that this individual showed for sniping and destroying caterpillars. While catching a slow-moving larva may not sound particularly difficult, picking one out from a distance in a stubbly meadow and dispatching it with relentless precision is a pretty impressive feat. I watched the bird crush so many insects in quick succession that I lost count during a relatively short observation period. Such brutal efficiency was a spectacle to behold. 

The cuckoo proved to be quite cooperative, paying little mind to the assembled witnesses as it continued its slaughter of the region’s caterpillars. At times it touched down mere feet away from bystanders, showboating beautifully before taking off again to cruise around the property. We were treated to more than our fill of incredible views as the bird worked its way through the area. By the time it headed for the distant tree line and disappeared into the woods, I was beyond satisfied with the performance. Taking our target’s temporary departure as our cue, we returned to the car and headed out. After a lovely driving tour of Jacqi’s old stomping grounds at the alma mater, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and started back towards New York. Another successful outing in the books!  I had truly believed I was done adding new species to my world life list this year after my successful summer searches in the Catskills and the Adirondacks. Having the good fortune to enjoy a close encounter of the cuckoo kind with such an incredible, confiding bird was a wonderfully pleasant surprise!

Though I strongly suspect my wild cuckoo sightings are behind me for the year, the cuculid craziness of 2020 is far from over. Fortuitously, I am currently in the midst of running a March Madness style bracket on the eternally entertaining Redpolling Facebook group in an effort to determine the best of world’s cuckoo species. These taxonomic tournaments have been a popular fixture of the community for years, and I was honored when I got the nod to host Cuculidae Cataclysm this fall. The competition is only just starting to ramp up, and the Common Cuckoo is still in the running for the time being. I certainly feel obligated to show some extra support for my latest lifer, especially considering that it is the classic model cuckoo! Check the group out for yourself if your interested in joining the chaos!