The parents of a childhood friend had a cuckoo clock. I was at her house for a sleepover and didn’t pay it much attention. But that night, I had a nightmare in which the cuckoo was singing and pecking on my head.
As an adult, I have a little more appreciation for the cuckoo, at least the yellow-billed cuckoos found in the West. Unlike many other species of cuckoos, “our” cuckoo builds its own nests and takes care of its own chicks.
The lazier (smarter?) cuckoo species lay eggs in other birds’ nests and then bugs off, leaving the child-rearing chores to others. The cuckoo chick hatches and pushes out the other eggs, and any chicks of the host bird, too.
It is estimated that there are as few as 680 (or about 1,000) breeding pairs from northern Mexico to southern British Columbia.
Records that date back to 1834 indicate that the yellow-billed nested in at least six counties: Whatcom, Skagit, King, Pierce, Grays Harbor and Clark.
Only 20 sightings have been documented since the 1950s, most likely birds that were not nesting. One yellow-billed was recorded just south of Sultan by multiple observers on three days in the summer of 1979, near a small pond in cottonwoods.
Historically there have been sightings east of the Cascades, usually along wooded rivers, but only a few sightings have been made since 1950. The Western yellow-billed cuckoo population was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2014.
The small numbers of yellow-billed cuckoos has led the Washington State Department of Fish &Wildlife to ask for your opinion on a draft status report on its recommendation to list it as an endangered species.
Comments will be accepted through April 30. The report is available online at wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/endangered/status_review.
The slender bird is about 12 inches long and generally breeds in dense willow, cottonwood and alder stands in riparian areas. It has an elongated down-curved bill that’s black above and yellow below, and three pairs of large white ovals on its long tail’s dark underside.
It migrates here from South America, mostly from an area that includes all or parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
You’re more likely to hear the bird’s distinctive calls than see this secretive bird, which most often perches in a sit-and-wait mode, waiting for large insects (it particularly likes caterpillars), or frogs and lizards, to come for dinner.
It has a drawn-out, many-note, slow, wooden-sounding knocking call among its vocal tools. Apparently the cuckoo in the clock couldn’t make the same sounds, which was probably a good thing.
Want more? Check out Nick Davies’ “Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature” (Bloomsbury). Being European-centered doesn’t interfere with Davies’ storytelling or the science.
The science is mixed with references far and wide, including quotes from “Through the Looking Glass,” the passion for oology (study and collecting of bird eggs) of businessman Edgar Chance, who collected 25,000 eggs (and a few fines for illegally taking some of them), and the oldest song in English (AD 1250, give or take) that happens to include the words “sing cuccu.”
Davies admires the cuckoo for its admittedly outrageous behavior in what amounts to an “evolutionary arms race.”
Check it out. A little unsure about the difference between an Anna’s and a rufous hummingbird? Go to pilchuckaudubon.org and see the comparison in the organization’s March newsletter.
Festival. Consider going to the 20th Othello Sandhill Crane Festival March 24-26 during the migration of 35,000 sandhill cranes to the breeding grounds in Alaska. In addition to the expected classes, this festival has tours focused on flora, fauna and geology of the area.
Gary Ivey of the International Crane Foundation is the featured speaker. For information and registration to some of the tours, go to othellosandhillcranefestival.org.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or firstname.lastname@example.org.