The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a slim brown-backed bird that breeds from southern Canada to Mexico and from California to the Caribbean islands (A.O.U. 1983). Common throughout the southeastern United States, it reaches its maximum abundance in the central states of Oklahoma and Texas (Sauer et al. 1995). It is considerably rarer west of central Texas (Sauer et al. 1995). This cuckoo undergoes a long migration and spends the winter in South America.
Many of the world’s cuckoos are brood parasites but the North American species (including the Yellow-billed Cuckoo) rarely lay their eggs in other birds’ nests (Bent 1940, Hughes 1997). The Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the Black-billed Cuckoo are two of the few North American birds that readily eat hairy caterpillars. They are often abundant when an outbreak of these pests occurs (Bent 1940, Ickes 1992).
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo generally spends the winter months in South America, although there are several sight records between December and February along the Texas coast and in Hidalgo County (Oberholser 1974). Pulich (1988) even listed two December records from the northern part of the state. However, it is generally present in Texas only from April to October (Oberholser 1974). Therefore, there is a good chance that most birds recorded by the TBBAP were breeding.
DISTRIBUTION: The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is common and widespread throughout Texas but becomes less common and more local in the western part of the state. The TBBAP recorded it in virtually every section east of the 100th meridian, but recorded it sporadically (with only 3 confirmed records) west of the 103rd meridian. Oberholser (1974) considered it common to uncommon throughout the state but he listed only scattered breeding records in the west. Pulich (1988) considered it among the most common summer birds in north central Texas.
SEASONAL OCCURRENCE: Because of its secretive nature, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo proved to be a very difficult species to confirm. Only 18% of the 1388 TBBAP records were confirmations. Of these, 28 were records of nests with eggs or young.
This cuckoo’s long breeding season extends from March to September (Baicich & Harrison 1997, Bent 1940). Oberholser (1974) listed egg dates of 22 March to 5 September. TBBAP records included nests with eggs from 1 May to 29 July and nests with young from 4 June to 30 July. The Cornell University Nest Record Card Program has more Cuckoos are absent from the state during the non-breeding season. Therefore, most of the possible and probable TBBAP records likely also represent breeding individuals.
BREEDING HABITAT: The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a secretive, sluggish bird that is hard to observe and can vanish into the foliage (Howell & Webb 1995). It seems to prefer more open woodlands than the Black-billed Cuckoo (Ickes 1992). Mature bottomland forests are an important habitat for this bird and for many neo-tropical migrants (Buffington et al. 1997). It will nest in thickets, scrubby fields, abandoned farmland, and unsprayed orchards (Bent 1940, Bull 1964). Many of the records from the Cornell University Nest Record Card Program are of nests in fencerows and shrubby pastures. Even on migration it seems to prefer scrub/shrub type habitat (Moore et al. 1990).
STATUS: Although it is still a common bird in Texas, the Yellow-billed Cuckoos numbers are diminishing. Like many neo-tropical migrants it has declined considerably throughout its range in the past thirty years (Sauer et al. 1996). It has shown a substantial decline in virtually all regions of the country. In Texas, BBS data indicate that it declined by a statistically significant 2% per year from 1966 to 1996 (Sauer et al. 1996).
Several factors combine to explain this decline. The most apparent reasons are the loss of habitat (both on its breeding and wintering grounds) and forest fragmentation, which is believed to cause increased predation on nests (Wilcove & Robinson 1990). It also suffers from modern farming practices that eliminate hedgerows, fencerows, and similar overgrown areas. The disturbance of mature riparian woods in the west caused it to be placed on the Blue List of species of special concern (Tate & Tate 1982). The continued decline of such habitats poses a concern for the long-term success of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and other species that depend on them.
Text by David E. Fantina (1997)
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Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 1997. A guide to the nests, eggs, and nestlings of North American birds. Academic Press, New York.
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Ickes, R. 1992. Yellow_billed Cuckoo Pp. 152-153 in Atlas of breeding birds in Pennsylvania (D. W. Brauning, ed.). University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.
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Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Pulich, W. M. 1988. The birds of north central Texas. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
Sauer, J. R., B. G. Peterjohn, S. Schwartz and J. E. Hines. 1996. The North American breeding bird survey home page. Version 95.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD. (Accessed 1 September, 1998).
Tate, J., Jr., and D. J. Tate. 1982. The Blue List for 1982. Am. Birds 36: 126-135.
Wilcove, D. S. and S. K. Robinson. 1990. The impact of forest fragmentation on bird communities in eastern North America. Pp. 319-331 in Biogeography and ecology of forest bird communities (A. Keast, ed.). SPB Academic Publishers, The Hague, Netherlands.