When you hear the word “cuckoo,” you think of one of two things: 1) A crazy person or 2) The bird behind the famous “cuckoo” clocks. But did you know that during the summer months, Maine is home to not one but two species of cuckoos?
Black-billed Cuckoos can be found throughout the state during the warm months of the year, while Yellow-billed Cuckoos are possible in Southern Maine. They look similar to each other: both are large songbirds, with long tails and long bills. Their undersides are pale, while their backs sport warm brown tones. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos, unsurprisingly, have yellow bills and rust-colored feathers on their wings. By contrast, the Black-billed species has a dark bill along with bright red eyes.
If you’re like me, you spent most of your life in Maine completely unaware of their existence. Given their distinct appearance, how is this possible?
Both cuckoos are secretive, foraging slowly in the trees looking for caterpillars. They are more often seen than heard, and apparently call frequently before rain storms (they have been nicknamed “Rain Crows”). Yellow-billed Cuckoos prefer woodlands near water, while the Black-billed like extensive tracks of forest with plenty of thickets.
When the summer months end, both species migrate to warmer weather in South America, an impressive trek of thousands of miles. Unfortunately, both species are at risk. The Yellow-billed variety has experienced population declines of 1.5% since 1966, adding up to over a 50% loss; today there are 9 million breeding birds. Much of their near-river habitat has been developed, and they suffer from collisions with buildings, towers, and turbines during migration. Populations of Black-billed Cuckoos have also been declining, and today there are approximately 870,000 breeding birds, 47% of which spend at least some of the year in the United States. Pesticide use can hurt the caterpillars that they depend on, and they also collide with structures during migration.
I highly recommend seeking out these birds for yourself! Join a local bird walk, or keep your eyes peeled for their distinctive silhouettes. Take it from me, they are some of the coolest birds that call Maine home.