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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Coccyzus americanus ORDER: CUCULIFORMES FAMILY: CUCULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Yellow-billed Cuckoos are slender, long-tailed birds that manage to stay well hidden in deciduous woodlands. They usually sit stock still, even hunching their shoulders to conceal their crisp white underparts, as they hunt for large caterpillars. Bold white spots on the tail’s underside are often the most visible feature on a shaded perch. Fortunately, their drawn-out, knocking call is very distinctive. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in the East but have become rare in the West in the last half-century.

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Keys to identification Help

Crows and Jays-like
Crows and Jays-like
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly large, long, and slim birds. The bill is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly downcurved. They have a flat head, thin body, and very long tail. Wings appear pointed and swept back in flight.

  • Color Pattern

    Yellow-billed Cuckoos are warm brown above and clean whitish below. They have a blackish mask across the face and a yellow eyering. In flight, the outer part of the wings flash rufous. From below, the tail has wide white bands and narrower black ones. The bill is mostly yellow.

  • Behavior

    Yellow-billed Cuckoos forage slowly and methodically in treetops for large, hairy caterpillars—their slow approach can make them hard to find. However, they are vocal birds, and their slow, rolling, guttural calls are distinctive. They fly in a straight path using sharp wingbeats with a slight pause between them.

  • Habitat

    They live mainly among the canopies of deciduous trees; look for them in woodland patches with gaps and clearings. In the West, this species is rare and restricted to the cottonwood-dominated forests that line larger rivers running through arid country.

Range Map Help

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  •  

    Yellow-billed Cuckoo

     
    • Slender, long-tailed songbird
    • Inconspicuous, often foraging for caterpillars in dense foliage
    • Tan/gray above, white below with decurved yellow bill
    • Bold white spots on underside of tail
    • © Photosbyjoe, Texas, June 2011
  •  

    Yellow-billed Cuckoo

     
    • Elongated appearance with slender body and long tail
    • Tan/gray above, white below with some rusty/rufous edges on wing feathers
    • Bold white spots on underside of tail
    • Thin, decurved yellow bill
    • © Kelly Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, September 2011
  •  

    Yellow-billed Cuckoo

     
    • Elongated body shape with long tailed and decurved yellow bill
    • Dull tan/gray above, white below
    • Large, dark eyes
    • © Photosbyjoe, Texas, June 2011

Similar Species

  •  

    Black-billed Cuckoo

     
    • Smaller and more slender-bodied than Yellow-billed Cuckoo
    • Smaller, less curved bill solid gray/black with no yellow
    • Pale spots on underside of tail much smaller and less contrasting than on Yellow-billed Cuckoo
    • © Jim Gilbert, Kay Environmental Center, Chester, New Jersey, May 2007

Similar Species

    Black-billed Cuckoos are overall drabber, with no bright yellow on the bill, no flash of rufous in the wings, and only narrow white bands on the underside of the tail compared to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. While juvenile Black-billed Cuckoos have yellowish eyerings, they lack bright white on the underside of the tail and yellow in the bill. Doves such as the Mourning Dove and are plumper, with smaller heads and less lanky proportions than cuckoos. They tend to live in more open habitats and use more exposed perches. They are more uniformly brown, without the cuckoo’s blackish mask, yellow bill, or barred tail.

Find This Bird

Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly easy to hear but hard to spot. In summer, start by looking in areas of deciduous forest for infestations of tent caterpillars, as well as outbreaks of cicadas or other large arthropods. Listen for the species’ distinctive, knocking call, which can be given at any time, night or day. Later in summer, listen more for their dove-like cooing, as they give their knocking call much less frequently. The species is virtually silent by day during migration, so watch for their distinctive long, slim shape and rapid and fluid wingbeats as they cross over open patches below treetop level on their way from one woodlot to another. In fall, areas with fall webworm infestations often support Yellow-billed Cuckoos.

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