Western yellow-billed cuckoo

YBCU1The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus, YBCU) is a secretive and slender, ~30 cm long neotropical migrant bird species that is relatively widespread in forested habitats across the eastern United States, but is rarer and generally restricted to areas with deciduous riparian trees along riparian corridors through parts of western North America. The taxonomic status of the yellow-billed cuckoo, particularly those birds in the western part of their range (referred to in some works as Coccyzus americanus occidentalis) is not universally agreed upon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considers yellow-billed cuckoos that occur in the western parts of North America to be a distinct population segment (DPS) of the yellow-billed cuckoo, or the western yellow-billed cuckoo. It is clear that the western yellow-billed cuckoo has experienced significant declines, largely associated with losses of riparian cottonwood-willow habitat in the West, and is considered to be extirpated in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. Consequently, the western DPS of the yellow-billed cuckoo was federally listed as threatened in 2014.

The western YBCU primarily breeds in relatively large tracts of native broadleaf deciduous woodlands, which are generally located along streams and rivers. However, recent research and survey efforts have changed the current understanding of what vegetation types should be considered suitable breeding habitat. For example, YBCU will successfully rear broods in Madrean oak woodland associated with mountain canyons, as well as velvet mesquite bosques.

In southern Arizona, YBCU are late-season breeders with peak breeding occurring in July and August. Among bird species, YBCU have one of the most rapid incubation and nestling period with young being capable of fledging (though not flying) approximately 17 days after egg-laying. This species is relatively reclusive, and spends long periods of time at stationary perches in the tree canopy searching for large-bodied invertebrates such as caterpillars, katydids, and cicadas. The YBCU is well known for being capable of eating large numbers of hairy and often noxious caterpillars, prey that are usually ignored by other bird species.

YBCU have been regularly observed in the County’s Cienega Creek and Bingham Cienega Natural Preserves, along with infrequent observations from several other preserves. Pima County has committed to monitoring for the presence of YBCU every three years at the two preserves mentioned above using the USFWS-approved call playback survey protocol. Monitoring results will be reported to the USFWS for use in range-wide species conservation decisions.

Photo by Brian Powell - Pima County