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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Audubon).jpg

THE YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO.

Coccyzus americanus. Bonap.

PLATE II. Male and Female.


Were I inclined, like many persons who write on Natural History, to criticise the figures given by other students, I should find enough to be censured ; but as my object is simply to communicate the result of studies to which I have devoted the greater part of my life, I shall content myself with merely recommending to those intent on the advancement of that most interesting science, to bestow a little more care on their representations of the bills, legs and feet of the species which they bring into notice, and let it be seen that they indeed borrow from nature.

From Nature!—How often are these words used, when at a glance he who has seen the perfect and beautiful forms of birds, quadrupeds or other objects, as they have come from the hand of Nature, discovers that the representation is not that of living Nature! But I am deviating from the track which I wish to follow, my desire being simply to give you an opportunity, good reader, of judging for yourself as to the truth of my delineations, and to present you with the results of my observations made in those very woods where the subjects have been found and depicted.

The flight of the bird now before you is rapid, silent, and horizontal, as it moves from one tree to another, or across a field or river, and is generally continued amongst the branches of the trees in our woods. When making its way among the branches, it occasionally inclines the body to either side, so as alternately to shew its whole upper or under parts. During its southward migration, it flies high in the air, and in such loose flocks that the birds might seem to follow each other, instead of their keeping company together. On the other hand, early in March, the greater number enter our southern boundaries singly, the males arriving first, and the females a few weeks after. They do not fly in a continued line, but in a broad front, as, while travelling with great rapidity in a steam-boat, so as to include a range of a hundred miles in one day, I have observed this Cuckoo crossing the Mississippi at many different points on the same day. At this season, they resort to the deepest shades of the forests, and intimate their presence by the frequent repetition of their dull and unmusical notes, which are not unlike those of the young Bull-Frog. These notes may be represented by the word cow, cow, repeated eight or ten times with increasing rapidity. In fact, from the resemblance of its notes to that word, this Cuckoo is named Cow Bird in nearly every part of the Union. The Dutch farmers of Pennsylvania know it better by the name of Rain Crow, and in Louisiana the French settlers call it Coucou.

It robs smaller birds of their eggs, which it sucks on all occasions, and is cowardly and shy, without being vigilant. On this latter account, it often falls a prey to several species of Hawks, of which the Pigeon Hawk (Falco columbarius) may be considered as its most dangerous enemy. It prefers the Southern States for its residence, and when very mild winters occur in Louisiana, some individuals remain there, not finding it necessary to go farther south.

This bird is not abundant anywhere, and yet is found very far north. I have met with it in all the low grounds and damp places in Massachusets, along the line of Upper Canada, pretty high on the Mississippi and Arkansas, and in every state between these boundary lines. Its appearance in the State of New York seldom takes place before the beginning of May, and at Green Bay not until the middle of that month. A pair here and there seem to appropriate certain tracts to themselves, where they rear their young in the midst of peace and plenty. They feed on insects, such as caterpillars and butterflies, as well as on berries of many kinds, evincing a special predilection for the mulberry. In autumn they eat many grapes, and I have seen them supporting themselves by a momentary motion of their wings opposite a bunch, as if selecting the ripest, when they would seize it and return to a branch, repeating their visits in this manner until satiated. They now and then descend to the ground, to pick up a wood-snail or a beetle. They are extremely awkward at walking, and move in an ambling manner, or leap along sidewise, for which the shortness of their legs is ample excuse. They are seldom seen perched conspicuously on a twig, but on the contrary are generally to be found amongst the thickest boughs and foliage, where they emit their notes until late in autumn, at which time they discontinue them.

The nest is simple, flat, composed of a few dry sticks and grass, formed much like that of the Common Dove, and, like it, fastened to a horizontal branch, often within the reach of man, who seldom disturbs it. It makes no particular selection as to situation or the nature of the tree, but settles any where indiscriminately. The eggs are four or five, of a rather elongated oval form, and bright green colour. They rear only one brood in a season, unless the eggs are removed or destroyed. The young are principally fed with insects during the first weeks. Towards autumn they become very fat, and are fit for being eaten, although few persons, excepting the Creoles of Louisiana, shoot them for the table.

The branch, among the foliage of which you see the male and female winging their way, is one of the Papaw, a tree of small size, seldom more than from twenty to thirty feet in height, with a diameter of from three to seven inches. It is found growing in all rich grounds, to which it is peculiar, from the southern line of our States to central Pennsylvania, seldom farther eastward, here and there only along the alluvial shores of the Ohio and Mississippi. In all other places of like nature you may meet with groves of Papaw trees, covering an acre or more of ground. The fruit, which is represented in the plate, consists of a pulpy and insipid substance, within which are found several large, hard, and glossy seeds. The rind is extremely thin. The wood is light, soft, brittle, and almost useless. The bark, which is smooth, may be torn off from the foot of the tree to the very top, and is frequently used for making ropes, after it has been steeped in water sufficiently to detach the outer part, when the fibres are obtained, which, when twisted, are found to be nearly as tough and durable as hemp. The numerous islands of the Ohio and all the other western rivers are generally well stocked with this tree.


Coccyzus americanus, Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 42.

Cuculus americanus, Linn. Syst. Nat. vol i. p. 170—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 219.

Carolina Cuckoo, Lath. Synopsis, vol. ii. p. 527.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Cuculus carolinensis. Wils. Americ. Ornith. vol. iv. p. 13. Pl. 28. fig. 1.


Adult Male. Plate II. Fig. 1.

Bill as long as the head, compressed, shghtly arched, acute, scarcely more robust than in many Sylviæ; upper mandible carinated above, its margins acute and entire; lower mandible carinated beneath, acute. Nostrils basal, lateral, linear-elliptical, half closed by a membrane. Feet short; tarsus scutellate before and behind; toes two before, separated; two behind, one of which is versatile, the sole flat; claws slender, compressed, arched.

Plumage blended, slightly glossed. Wings long, the first quill short, the third longest, the primaries tapering. Tail long, graduated, of ten feathers, which are rather narrow and rounded.

Upper mandible brownish-black, yellow on the margin towards the base; under mandible yellow. Iris hazel. Feet greyish-blue. The general colour of the upper parts, including the wing-coverts and two middle tail-feathers, is light greenish-brown, deeper anteriorly. Primary quills with the inner webs brownish-orange. Tail-feathers, excepting the two middle ones, black, the next two entirely black, the rest broadly tipped with white, the outermost white on the outer web. The under parts are greyish-white.

Length 12½ inches, extent of wings 16; bill along the ridge 1, along the gap 1⅓.


Adult Female. Plate II. Fig. 2.

The female differs very little from the male in colouring.




The Papaw Tree.

Porcelia triloba, Pursh, Flor. Amer. vol. ii. p. 383. Anona triloba, Willd. Sp. Pl. vol. ii. p. 1267. Mich. Arbr. Forest, de l'Amer. Sept. vol. iii. p. 162. Pl. 9.—Polyandria Polygynia, Linn. Anonæ, Juss.


Leaves obovato-cuneate, acuminate, smoothish; outer petals orbiculate; fruits oblong, large, and fleshy. The leaves are from six to ten inches long; the flowers of a rich dark purple.