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Cuckoos of North America

Cuckoos are birds of the Cuculidae family, and even though they are named after the sound they make, only the males of the common cuckoo species sing the two notes that make the sound cuckoo.

There are three species of cuckoo found in North America. The smallest but most common species is the black-billed cuckoo. The next is the yellow-billed cuckoo that spreads south to Mexico. Lastly is the mangrove cuckoo, which is bigger and more slender-looking than the other two species.

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Size And Shape

Cuckoos can weigh up to 2.1 ounces and reach from 12.6 to 14.1 inches in length. They are medium-sized, slender birds with plumage patterns that can appear hawk-like.

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Mangrove Cuckoo

Susan Young Flickr

The mangrove cuckoo is mostly found in southern Florida, where you are most likely to see one in mangrove regions.

Although some people think the mangrove cuckoo is a migratory bird to Florida, others believe that it is becoming more common throughout Florida.

Like other birds, Mangrove Cuckoo’s foot four toes which are known as “zygodactyl.” 

As it is already mentioned that its habitat is based on mangrove swamps, another habitat that they frequent is tropical thickets, including scrub

The mangrove Cuckoo lives on mainly Caterpillars. Grasshoppers are found in their diet too. 

Their diet varies depending on the season. During their breeding period, they mainly rely on insect larvae. Its breeding system is not well recognized though according to some documentation, Male birds attract their female participants by singing songs in spring. They make their flimsy-nest in the low tree using sticks in mangrove sites. 

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Black-billed Cuckoo

Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren Flickr CC 2.0

The Black-billed Cuckoo, the largest Cuckoo species found in North America, ranges across southern Canada and American plains: Texas to Florida. 

Unlike the other cuckoo species, the black-billed birds are elusive and have uncommon features like a slim brown body, black bill, red-eye, small white tips on their tail feathers. Woodlands are the main habitat of Black-billed Cuckoos. In some cases, they can be found in thickets, including sugar maple and willow. 

We can mention large insects such as caterpillars, katydids, cicadas, and grasshopper as their main food. They eat particularly caterpillars, for example, webworms, tent caterpillars, and gypsy moths. The black-billed Cuckoo follows a monogamous-bond breeding system.

During the breeding season but before mating, male courts females with foods. Female black-billed-Cuckoo lays eggs in nests but occasionally in nests made by other birds. However, unlike other Cuckoo types, both males and females black-billed Cuckoo are seen to incubate the eggs. After hatching, the young Cuckoo of one-week-old leaves the parental nests. 

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Ashley Wahlberg Flickr CC 2.0

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo can be found mostly found in the southern, lowland areas of Florida. They are sometimes known as the rain crow or storm crow. 

Adult yellow-billed cuckoos have a long tail, a brown upper with black-and-white underneath, a black bill with a yellow lower jawbone. A yellow loop is observed around the eye. During its flight, cinnamon is sought. Like the males, the juveniles are almost comparable, but the only difference is that the female has a gray-colored tail. 

The yellow-billed cuckoo’s habitat is based in woods with thick cover close to or beside the water. The yellow-billed Cuckoo seemed to have an appetite for caterpillars: in every season, individual cuckoos can eat thousands of caterpillars.

During the summer and fall, the yellow-billed cuckoo changes their food habits from insects to fruits, including elderberries, blackberries, and wild grapes. In winter, fruit, as well as seeds, make up a large portion of their diet. Just before mating, the male participants snap off a short twig presenting toward the female. 

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Habitat Of Cuckoos

Most cuckoo species are tree dwellers, while some are ground dwellers, preferring life nearer the ground. Many species of cuckoos prefer lush, tropical habitats. However, the majority of cuckoos live in forests, woodland, and rainforests.

Distribution Of Cuckoos

Many recorded species of cuckoo can be found in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia. They have a cosmopolitan distribution, meaning they are found worldwide and on all continents except for Antarctica.

In North America, the yellow-billed cuckoo can be found in Mexico and the United States, but it is less likely to be seen in Canada.  The black-billed cuckoo can be seen throughout the central and eastern regions of North America.  The mangrove cuckoo can be found in Florida and the Caribbean.

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Diet of Cuckoos

Cuckoos feed mainly on insects, including larvae such as caterpillars, a variety of other animals, and different fruits.

Behavior Of Cuckoos

Cuckoos are generally solitary, shy animals rarely seen in pairs or groups and can be heard more often than seen.

Most species are sedentary, but some of them are seasonal migrants, and the rest migrate partially over a section of their range.

Breeding System of Cuckoos

Cuckoos are famous for their strange breeding habits. Some species (the common cuckoos) are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, having them raise their brood. However, the majority of cuckoo species raise their own offspring.

Common cuckoos are careful about which nests they lay eggs in, as well as the timing in which they lay them. They commonly choose smaller birds as their hosts. The female cuckoo will pay close attention to the host birds’ behavior and routines to determine the best time for laying their eggs. This is because their baby chicks are larger and need the whole brood’s food, so they must hatch in an altricial state before the others and push out the other eggs for more food and space.

It is not uncommon to see reed warblers (common hosting choice) sticking their heads in the open beak of much larger cuckoo birds to feed them, being convinced that they are their offsprings.

The majority of cuckoo species do not breed this way. Some are monogamous, and some are communal breeders, meaning a bunch of parents care for one large nest of offsprings.

For more information on cuckoos and other birds of North America, I recommend the following field guides.

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