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Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

Breeding: Widespread in east, occurs in all of the eastern United States and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo breeding range mapsouthern regions of Quebec and Ontario. Once common in portions of the western United States, now restricted to very localized areas in all western states.

Winter: Southern Central America and northern South America south to eastern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina. Also found in Trinidad and Tobago; rare in West Indies.

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Breeding habitat

Open woodlands, especially where undergrowth is thick, parks, deciduous riparian woodland, moist thickets, orchards, and overgrown pastures. In the West, check in tall cottonwood and willow riparian woodlands.

Conservation status

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a widespread species that is of moderate conservation concern, primarily because of low overall densities and significant long-term population declines nearly throughout its range. Declines have been precipitous in many areas since 1980. The southwestern population is particularly specialized on mature riparian forests and has been petitioned to be listed as an endangered species. This species is also vulnerable to deforestation in its tropical winter range. Understanding habitat and area requirements of this cuckoo, and how they may vary geographically, will be important for reversing population declines and conserving future populations.


Male: A slender and long-tailed bird. Clean white underneath, the white tips on the black tail feathers create distinctive large, white spots on tail. Upperparts are grayish brown, Yellow-billed Cuckoo in flight by James Coerufous seen in wing; bill largely yellow, also a yellow ring around the eye.

Female: Same as adult male.

Juvenile: Similar to adults, but paler tail pattern and bill may show little or no yellow. May be confused with Black-billed Cuckoo.


Calls: At least 6 vocal sounds produced:

Kowlp call: Most frequent call consists of 8-12 guttural, wooden-sounding syllables, ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp. Somewhat louder and more guttural than Black-billed Cuckoo, the ka syllables are given more rapidly while kowlp syllables are more deliberate and contain longer intervals. May function as a spacing mechanism, and may be given only by male, or at least only male gives call when both birds are present.

Knocker call: A harsh, rattled, rapid series of Notes that resembles sound of metal door knocker hitting a strike plate, kow-kow-kow-kow-kow. Often repeated several times once initiated.

Coo call: 5-11 softly repeated cooing Notes, coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo. Similar to Coo Call of Greater Roadrunner, but higher pitched and much quieter.

Foraging strategy

Forages in limbs of trees, often perching inconspicuously while scanning surrounding vegetation waiting for prey to reveal itself by movement. Gleans insects from leaves and stems while perched, also walks or runs along limbs stretching to capture prey. May hop to a branch located below caterpillar cluster, then fly up, fluttering awkwardly while capturing prey.


Primarily large insects, including caterpillars, katydids, cicadas, grasshoppers, and crickets; occasionally small frogs, arboreal lizards, eggs and young birds. Eats fruits and seeds rarely in summer, more frequently on wintering grounds.

Behavior and displays

  • Often perches with back arched and body held low to conceal white breast and belly.
  • Moves quietly along branches, disappearing quickly into foliage when disturbed.
  • Often freezes when in danger, particularly when Nesting, then moves quietly into dense vegetation where it remains motionless.
  • Both adults actively defend the nest and the immediate vicinity.


  • "Tail-pumping" display: in precopulatory behavior, female assumes position as if intending to flee, with head and tail elevated. Female then lowers tail so that it points toward ground, then raises it 180 degrees to point straight up; repeats 6-8 times.
  • Immediately prior to copulation, male snaps small twig from nearby tree. Flies with twig in bill to land directly on female’s back. Male places twig crosswise in female’s bill by orienting head over her right shoulder.


Nest site: Typically placed on horizontal branch or vertical fork of tree or large shrub.

Height: Usually 3-20 feet (1-6 meters) above ground, but ranges as high as 90 feet (27 meters).

Nest: Both adults collect twigs from the ground or break off vegetation to build a loose, flat, oblong platform of dry twigs, sparingly lined with dried leaves, strips of bark, and plant tendrils; placed in a tree, shrub, or vine. Nest components are not intertwined; may scatter rim of nest with dried pine needles.

Eggs: 1-5, usually 2-3, pale bluish green, eggs are unmarked, fading to light greenish yellow.

Incubation period: For 9-11 days both adults incubate equally during day, but the male incubates through the night. Male brings Nesting material each time he relieves female.

Nestling period: Young are altricial, but alert and active within 10 minutes of hatching. Both parents brood young, but male generally broods continuously at night; both parents feed young.

Fledgling period: Little information; young leave nest at 7–9 days, when nestlings are able to stand for extended periods. Chick leaves nest and runs along supporting limb to meet adult approaching with food; parents feed for a period after fledging.

Broods: One brood, occasionally two.

Cowbird Parasitism: An occasional host of the Brown-headed Cowbird.

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