Cuckoos are not easy birds to spot

There are two species of cuckoo in Ontario—Black-billed and Yellow-billed.
Casual observation shows that they are very much alike, however, since the Yellow-billed is nowhere near most of Northern Ontario, you don’t have to worry about mixing them up.
The Black-billed Cuckoo is a fairly plain bird, brown on top and white on the bottom. As you might guess, it has a wholly black beak.
It is a bit bigger than a robin, and has a longer tail. The overall look of the bird is sort of long and skinny.
Up close, the adult bird has a very narrow red ring around its eyes. As well, the long tail on this bird has small white ends to the black tail feathers.
The cuckoo is fairly careful in its choice of habitat. It prefers areas of fairly low bushes or trees, especially where there are openings, too.
Such areas as abandoned farms, active farms where there are growing hedges, and fields where tree growth has gone on for a few years.
But this bird is a secretive one. It likes low bushes and is really adept at hiding in them. If you should see it flying, it likely is just going from one clump to another.
The cuckoo has really benefitted from the cutting and clearing of the forests.
The Black-billed Cuckoo is quite a shy bird. It likes to keep itself out of sight in thick underbrush, and it is not really found in large numbers anywhere.
Since Northern Ontario depends—to a very large extent—on the forest, it is nice to know that one of the cuckoo’s favourite foods is the forest tent caterpillar.
So much so that whenever large outbreaks of this pest occurs, the cuckoo population always rises quite dramatically.
Nests usually are quite close to the ground, maybe 10 feet high at the most. The eggs are greenish.
Both kinds of cuckoos sometimes lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, the same way as the cowbird does.
Usually, the birds whose nests are parasitised are smaller than the young cuckoos. Thus, the young cuckoo soon crowds out the other birds and ends up with all the food for itself.
Birds such as sparrows, warblers, peewees, waxwings, and a lot more are fair game for the lazy cuckoo.
When they do raise their own young, both parents share in all the domestic chores.
Young cuckoos also have a rather odd habit which certainly is not common. When it is a few days old, the little one will leave its nest and go into a “climbing” phase.
Remember, it can’t fly but it can jump, which it does from one branch to another.
It hangs on for dear life but if it does happen to fall, it runs like mad into some kind of shelter. It also squeals loudly, which causes its parents to go into a frenzy.
Now about those bird calls. The Black-billed Cuckoo always starts off its song with a gurgle, then away he goes with his “song.”
This consists of eight or 10 “Cow-cow, cow-cow, cow-cow, cow-cow” and so on. The notes may be double or triple, or both.
One observer said that the notes sound like hitting a plank with a mallet. No beautiful songster, this!
So that is Northern Ontario’s cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus). Not easily seen but here nevertheless, it always is around during our outbreaks of the forest tent caterpillar.
Be glad that it is!

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