Black-billed cuckoo

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Black-billed cuckoo
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Cuculiformes
Family: Cuculidae
Genus: Coccyzus
Species: C. erythropthalmus
Binomial name
Coccyzus erythropthalmus
(Wilson, 1811)

The black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is New World species of bird in the Cuculidae (cuckoo) family. It is very similar and overlaps in range with the closely related yellow-billed cuckoo.

Adults have a long, graduated brown tail and a black, slightly downcurved bill. The head and upper parts are brown and the underparts are white. The feet are zygodactylous. Juveniles are drabber and may contain some rufous coloration on the wing. The adults have a narrow, red orbital ring while the juveniles' is yellow.[2]

Standard Measurements[3][4]
length 280–320 mm (11–12.6 in)
weight 52 g (1.8 oz)
wingspan 440 mm (17.5 in)
wing 132.9–140.9 mm (5.23–5.55 in)
tail 147.4–159.8 mm (5.80–6.29 in)
culmen 20.2–23.9 mm (0.80–0.94 in)
tarsus 21.1–24.1 mm (0.83–0.95 in)


Their breeding habitat is edges of wooded areas across North America east of the Rockies. When migrating in spring and fall, they can be seen in southern United States as well as all of Central America. Their wintering grounds are located in northwestern South America.[5] Although they are mainly an eastern North American species, there have been confirmed reports of them in British Columbia, Washington and California.[6] The species is also a rare vagrant to western Europe in fall.[7] They nest in a low tree or shrub, sometimes on the ground, laying 2 to 4 blue-green eggs, which are incubated by both parents for 10 to 11 days.[3]

Comparison of black-billed cuckoo and yellow-billed cuckoo

They migrate to South America. This species is a very rare vagrant to western Europe.


These birds forage in shrubs or trees. They mainly eat insects, especially tent caterpillars, but also some snails, eggs of other birds and berries. It is known to beat caterpillars against a branch before consuming to remove some of the indigestible hairs. Remaining hairs accumulate in the stomach until the bird sheds the stomach lining and disgorges a pellet in a manner similar to owls.[8][9]


The call of this species is 2-5 sets of "coo" notes that are high-pitched, rapid and repetitive. There is a slight pause between each set. The phonetics are often written "coo-coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo-coo, coo-coo-coo-coo, ...".[5]


Adults incubate the eggs for 10–13 days. The young black-billed cuckoos, as well as others cuckoos in the genus Coccyzus, the leave the nest 7–9 days after hatching which is quite young when compared to other birds. The young are not able to fly right away however they can still move quite large distances by jumping between tree branches. During this period, they are more vulnerable to predators because they cannot fly away as the adults could. Due to this vulnerability, the juveniles can slowly assume an erect posture to conceal themselves. They stretch their neck out and point their bill upwards, while keeping their eyes open and remaining motionless. If the threat starts to back off, the cuckoo will relax its pose.[10]

Outbreaks of tent caterpillars can have a positive effect on black-billed cuckoo populations. During these outbreaks, the adults begin laying eggs earlier in the season. They can also produce larger clutches and may even increase their parasitic activities.[11]

Brood Parasitism[edit]

Black-billed cuckoos are known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. They can lay eggs in the nests of other black-billed cuckoos, called conspecific parasitism, or in the nests of other songbirds, known as interspecific parasitism. The females will usually parasitize nests in the afternoon because the nests are often unguarded at this time. This cuckoo species is thought to have a laying interval of about a day so if two eggs show up in a nest on the same day, you can rightfully assume that one is a parasitic egg.[12]

Many cuckoos are obligate brood parasites, meaning they only lay eggs in other birds' nests and never take care of their own young. Birds that do this, such as the common cuckoo or the brown-headed cowbird, lay relatively small eggs because their expected hosts are usually smaller birds. Cuckoos in the genus Coccyzus, lay relatively large eggs even though they still parasitize smaller birds. Yellow warblers are the smallest birds recorded caring for black-billed cuckoo eggs. In experiments, these warblers were found to accept the cuckoo eggs 63% of the time even though their own eggs are only a quarter of the size. Even with the size difference, the warbler parent is often still able to raise the cuckoo as long as it can provide the chick with sufficient nutrition and incubation.[13]


The black-billed cuckoo was originally placed in genus Cuculus. This genus comprises Old World cuckoos that are all obligate brood parasites. Upon further genetic testing, it was placed into genus Coccyzus which comprises nine species of New World cuckoos. The black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos are the only two that migrate into North America while the other seven are permanent residents of either Central or South America. Even though these two cuckoos overlap in range, they are not sister taxa. This suggests that the two species invaded North America separately.[14]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Coccyzus erythropthalmus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Peterson RT. 2008. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. 1st ed. New York (NY): Houghton Mifflin Company. 531 p.
  3. ^ a b Godfrey, W. Earl (1966). The Birds of Canada. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada. p. 210. 
  4. ^ Sibley, David Allen (2000). The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf. p. 268. ISBN 0-679-45122-6. 
  5. ^ a b The Cornell Lab of Ornithology [Internet]. (2015). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University; [cited 2015 Sep 30]. Available from:
  6. ^ Van Velzen WT. (1967). Black-billed Cuckoo Records in California. The Condor 69(3): 318.
  7. ^ AviBirds [Internet]. (2012). Almere, NL: AviBirds; [cited 2015 Sep 30]. Available from:
  8. ^ Paulson, Dennis (2013). "Cuckoos - Tent Caterpillar Birds". BirdNote. 
  9. ^ "Tennessee's Watchable Wildlife: Black-billed Cuckoo". Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Retrieved 4 October 2015. 
  10. ^ Sealy SG. 1985. Erect Posture of the Young Black-Billed Cuckoo: An Adaptation for Early Mobility in a Nomadic Species. The Auk. 102(4): 889-892.
  11. ^ Sealy SG. 1978. Possible Influence of Food on Egg-Laying and Clutch Size in the Black-Billed Cuckoo. The Condor. 80(1): 103-104.
  12. ^ Sealy SG. 2003. Laying times and a case of conspecific nest parasitism in the Black-billed Cuckoo. Journal of Field Ornithology. 74(3): 257-260.
  13. ^ Guigueno MF, Sealy SG. 2011. How small is too small? Incubation of large eggs by a small host. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 89(10): 968-975.
  14. ^ Hughes JM. 2006. Phylogeny of the cuckoo genus Coccyzus (Aves : Cuculidae): a test of monophyly. Systematics and Biodiversity. 4(4): 483-488.

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