Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Coccyzus americanus


Early Spring Date: April 25
Late Spring Date: May 31
Best Dates to See in Spring: May 17-24

Black-billed Cuckoo

Coccyzus erythropthalmus


Early Spring Date: May 3
Late Spring Date: May 29
Infrequently Seen

Spring: Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in the Washington metro area. They are not known to breed at Monticello Park, but they might breed in the surrounding neighborhood. Black-billed Cuckoos are uncommon migrants. On average, they are encountered at Monticello roughly once every two years. They breed in the northern United States and the Appalachian Mountains.

Fall: Monticello has about 5 Yellow-billed Cuckoo sightings each fall, with most occurring during the first 3 weeks in September. Only one Black-billed Cuckoo has ever been recorded at Monticello Park during the fall.

Where to See Them in the Park

Both cuckoo species usually perch in the canopy, and they can be difficult to find even if they are vocalizing. They sometimes come lower, and on rare occasions, will go into the stream for a quick drink.

Physical Descriptions


Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed - Photo by William Higgins

Cuckoos are large birds with a long tail and pointed wings; in flight, they look a bit like a falcon. The two cuckoo species look similar, but there are key differences. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo has a thick bill, with the lower half yellow and the upper half mostly black. The underparts are white, the back is brown, and the wings have rufous feathers. The black undertail feathers have broad white tips that look like spots. The orbital ring (the skin surrounding the eye) is yellowish or light-colored.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed - Photo by Michael Pollack

Black-billed Cuckoos have a black bill with no yellow. The orbital ring is red, and the tail feathers have white tips that look like narrow bars instead of white spots. Black-billed Cuckoos have little or no rufous in their wings. While they generally stay high in the trees, the one pictured above came down to a fallen tree at the front of Monticello. The tree was full of tent caterpillars, and the cuckoo stayed at eye level for hours, enjoying the food bonanza.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed - Photo by Ashley Bradford

Black-billed Cuckoo
Juvenile Yellow-billed - Photo by Ashley Bradford

Fall: Fall plumage for both cuckoo species is similar to spring plumage, but some juvenile Yellow-billed Cuckoos have a dark bill with no yellow.

Vocalizations

The call of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a long series of notes, often of three types, with the first few short and woody, the second few longer and woody, and the third a series of loud, sweet coo sounds. The call of the Black-billed is a much simpler coo-coo-coo-coo, delivered quickly.

Hear the call of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
Hear the call of the Black-billed Cuckoo.

Notes

Worldwide, the cuckoo family has more than 140 species, some of whom are famous for being parasitic nesters — i.e., they lay their eggs in the nests of other species and let the hosts incubate the eggs and raise the young. Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos both build nests and raise young. However, Yellow-billed Cuckoos will sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of Black-billed Cuckoos, and some Black-billed Cuckoos will lay their eggs in the nests of other Black-billed Cuckoos.

Origin of Names

Common Names: Yellow-billed from the yellow lower mandible. Black-billed from the black bill. Cuckoo from the call of the European Cuckoo.
Genus Name: Coccyzus is a cuckoo.
Species Names: Americanus means "from America". Erythropthalmus means "red-eyed", even though the red is on the skin surrounding the eye.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo video footage
Black-billed Cuckoo video footage

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