It’s 6am and sweat is already dripping from face to clipboard. The sky is lead above, crushing us with suffocating humidity as we slog through stinking mud to our next survey point. Our objective is the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus occidentalis), a secretive neotropical migrant with a penchant for the stickiest, buggiest places in the west.
The only close relative cuckoos have in Arizona is the Greater Roadrunner, a bird that sports the tell-tale cuckoo trait: zyodactyl toe arrangement. Check out roadrunner tracks and you’ll see the diagnostic “X” pattern formed by a foot with two toes forward and two behind. Birds with this arrangement (parrots, some woodpeckers) are typically very arboreal, using this adaptation to cling to branches/tree trunks or to manipulate food items. Another cuckoo trait is a long, elegant tail coupled with an inquisitive nature.
As riparian obligates in most of their range, yellow-billed cuckoos have watched their breeding habitat diminish and dry up with their own wise eyes. Imagine the disappointment of returning to your tried-and-true nesting area after a flight (under your own power) from Paraguay, only to find the riverbed dry and the insect life nonexistent. Thusly, cuckoo numbers have declined, and the species was listed as Threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 . Climate change has exacerbated habitat conversion and dewatering by introducing “mystery monsoon” seasons—will we get them this year? If so, when? Cuckoos specialize in large insects such as caterpillars, cicadas, and grasshoppers. These critters become abundant during monsoon times, thusly the YBCU earned its nickname “Rain Crow” because they wait until the storms come to nest. No rain ultimately means no cuckoos.
Audubon Southwest’s Arizona contingent has been surveying cuckoos on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) managed Agua Fria National Monument for over ten years. Not a surprise that Audubon is conducting bird surveys with a federal partner; what usually catches people’s ear is that we engaged high school interns to help us. Most of our field crew had never heard of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but by the end of the summer, could educate others about them. Learn more about this work here, and about our partnership with the Sonoran Audubon Chapter to get even more interns on the ground.
Amidst the deafening hum of cicadas, my intern for the day Nyah Torres (now at University of Arizona studying biology) and I simultaneously hear a cuckoo’s rapid knocking call, a sound they make when contacting another cuckoo in the area. In this case, the bird responds to our taped call (cheating, I know, but part of the USFWS sanctioned protocol we are trained and permitted to perform). We share goofy smiles, and silently pump arms in the air before entering the data. We immediately stop the playback as to not stress the bird and scan the area for a view. We don’t get it, and that’s typical, so we move on.
When you see a cuckoo, you don’t forget it. They are a beautiful bird with a stainless chest, remarkable bill, and movie-star build. Agile flyers, they tend to require open understory to swoop safely from tree to tree. Nests are high in the canopy and are critically timed to insect availability. Cuckoos have evolved to grow remarkably fast and can leave the nest 14 days from hatch. This is necessary because these athletes begin journeying to South America in late August/ September. Cuckoos reside in Arizona for a mere 4.5 months, a much shorter stay than most of our migratory birds. Impressed? You should be!
It's as easy to help cuckoos as it is to drink a beer! Our Western Rivers Brewers Council member, Borderlands Brewing Company releases “Rain Crow IPA” in August, for the third year. These beer releases provide Audubon with an opportunity to educate people about cuckoos and to engage them in advocacy to protect water for wildlife by joining or Western Water Action Network. Toast the cuckoo, and toast yourself for helping spread the word.