The cuckoo announces summer, then disappears.
The cuckoo is a summer bird. A song dating from the 13th century says, “Sumer is icumenin. Lhude sings cuckoo.”
In modern English, that would be, “Summer has arrived. The cuckoo sings loudly.”
That would be the European cuckoo, of course.
But our cuckoo is equally a sign of summer. Its staccato cooing, usually three or four notes on the same pitch, announce the summer season.
And a cuckoo close by is a loud bird. In fact, cuckoos are far more likely to be heard than seen. They are secretive birds of wet woods, not the sort of habitat humans favor.
Probably they are fairly common in our area. Tim Driscoll, the raptor expert, has found that the peregrine falcons nesting at UND take and eat a lot of cuckoos.
The cuckoo that occurs here is the black-billed cuckoo. There are two other cuckoo species in North America, yellow-billed and mangrove cuckoo. In the United States, the mangrove cuckoo occurs only in Florida. The yellow-billed cuckoo is a bird of the Southeast. Its range may extend into southeastern North Dakota.
In his “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” Robert Stewart calls the species “hypothetical” in North Dakota.
Black-billed cuckoos are late arrivals here. They show up by mid-June and disappear by early August. I don’t know that they leave the area then. But they do fall silent.
The cuckoo announced itself pretty vociferously last week. Perhaps the wind storm of late June disrupted the cuckoo’s nesting routine, as it did with other species.
The black-billed cuckoo is a plain bird, but it is distinctive in several ways. Plumage isn’t much help in identifying cuckoos. The upper parts are brown, and the underside white. This description could apply to a number of bird species.
The cuckoo is slim bird, almost delicate in appearance. This is enhanced by the bird’s long tail.
A cuckoo at rest seems almost wraithlike. It tends to sit vertically, head up and tail down, not horizontally as some birds display themselves. Thus, the cuckoo looks long and skinny.
In flight, it has the appearance of an arrow. Its flight seems rapid and direct.
The American Ornithologists’ Union monograph on the species puts this well. The black-billed cuckoo, it says, is “graceful in flight but skulky and retiring in habit.”
So shy is the cuckoo that its whereabouts outside the breeding season are largely unknown.
“The black-billed cuckoo is rarely seen during migration and on wintering grounds in South America,” the monograph declares.
That is why I can’t say when the cuckoos leave. They may be hanging around later than I imagine, but they don’t let me know.
The cuckoos are unique in at least a couple of other ways, one of which I have observed, the other I have read.
The cuckoo has a fairly large territory. I see them patrolling an area that encompasses a couple of acres, at least — a big area for a fairly small bird. The patrols involve flying along the shelterbelts, calling now and again at different points along the route.
For some reason, the route is almost always counterclockwise. Perhaps that’s just a habit. Perhaps it’s influenced by the lay of the land.
The other peculiarity is the cuckoo’s diet. It eats massive numbers of spiny caterpillars. The bird is able to eject and replace the lining of its stomach.
It may be that the abundance of insects dictates the cuckoo’s movements overall. Clutch sizes are reported to be larger in years when caterpillars are numerous.
Black-billed cuckoos are well-adapted in another way. Their young are born more fully developed than those of most other species. This means they are out of the nest and feeding themselves more quickly. That also could account for the apparently short stay on breeding grounds.
The nest, Stewart tells us, is on or near the ground. I’ve never found one.
The black-billed cuckoo, by the way, is not a nest parasite, like its European cousin. American cuckoos build their own nests and tend their own young.
In much of the United States, the cuckoos are regarded as “rain birds.” The birds aren’t forecasting rain, yet their calls are characteristic of humid summer nights.
I heard a cuckoo call Wednesday evening. We got better than half an inch of rain that night.