Besides those found in clocks, there are four regularly occurring cuckoo species in the mainland U.S. One of these may not be thought of as a cuckoo by beginning birders, partly because of its large size compared to the other three species, and partly because the word "cuckoo" doesn't appear in its name. Familiar in cartoon form to millions of Americans, the roadrunner (properly called the Greater Roadrunner) is in fact a cuckoo. And, like the cartoon bird, it can in fact run quite rapidly (15-20 mph) and is a rather weak flyer. It uses this speed to capture its prey, including snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, and even other birds. Those homeowners lucky enough to have roadrunners pay a visit to their bird feeders may witness the skilled capture of small and even medium size songbirds by this capable predator. This species is also known to enjoy pet food left outside for the family dog. Identification of this species is straightforward. A shaggy crest, very long tail, streaky brown plumage, red and blue skin behind the eye, and speedy running behavior combine to leave little doubt about its identity. Though uncommon throughout its range, it can be readily seen in the arid southwest, and also occurs (more or less) from central California east to Arkansas.
The three other cuckoo species are all much less similar in appearance to the roadrunner and more similar to each other. The species with the most limited range is the Mangrove Cuckoo, which occurs along the southern Gulf Coast of Florida. It shares the typical cuckoo traits of having a long tail and a fairly large and rather downcurved bill. The underside of the tail shows large, bold, white spots, and in flight the upper side of the primary feathers (near the outer edge of the wing) are a uniformly brownish color. The bill is clearly two-toned, being dark above and yellow below.
Birders outside of western Florida (and occasionally south Texas where Mangrove Cuckoo has also occurred) need only concern themselves with the remaining two cuckoos, namely the Black-billed Cuckoo and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. As you might have guessed, bill color is one good way to distinguish these two species. Yellow-billed Cuckoos do have mostly yellow bills, but a considerable portion of the upper mandible may be dark, so one must look carefully at the entire bill before ruling out Black-billed Cuckoo. There are other features even more useful (in many cases) than bill color for separating these two species. The underside of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo's tail shows large white spots (like those of the Mangrove Cuckoo), while the underside of a Black-billed Cuckoo's tail shows small white spots. These two species are readily separable even in flight by looking at the upperside of the primaries. As in Mangrove Cuckoo, the primaries of Black-billed Cuckoo show little or no rufous color. The primaries of Yellow-billed Cuckoo show bright and extensive rufous coloring, something that is easily seen on a flying bird. With a good look at an adult Black-billed Cuckoo, a narrow ring of red skin is visible around the eyes.
Spring migration and the summer months are great times to look for cuckoos across the eastern two thirds of the U.S., and roadrunners are resident year-round throughout their range in the southwest. Obtaining a CD of bird songs will help you distinguish their songs and calls, making it possible to identify cuckoos without even seeing them. This is a useful skill, given that the widespread Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos are somewhat reclusive woodland residents, and are therefore not always easy to see.
Dan Reinking grew up birding in northwest Iowa after a December visit by his uncle, an active birder, left him with a passion for birds. He has since turned bird study into an occupation, having conducted or participated in research in South Dakota, Minnesota, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Venezuela. Employed with the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center in Oklahoma since 1992, he recently coordinated the Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas Project. He is also a member of the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee and president of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society
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