Black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus)

GenusCoccyzus (1)
SizeLength: 28 - 31 cm (2)
Wingspan: 34 - 40 cm (2)
Weight40 - 65 g (2)

The black-billed cuckoo is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A secretive and elusive bird found in dense vegetation, the black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is more often heard than seen, producing a rhythmic “cu-cucall to proclaim its arrival at its breeding grounds (2) (3). This species can also be heard calling shortly before rainfall, a behaviour that has led it to being given the nickname of ‘rain crow’ (2). 

As its name implies, this cuckoo has a black bill. Its upperparts are greyish-brown and its underparts are pale greyish (4) (5). It can be separated from other, similar species by the bright red ring that surrounds the eye. In breeding adults, this ring may be yellowish (3) (4). 

The male and female black-billed cuckoo are indistinguishable, except for the fact that the female is slightly larger than the male. Juveniles look a lot like the adults, but have a more brownish head and a yellowish eye ring. Unlike the adult, the juvenile does not show white spots on its tail, which also helps separate the juvenile black-billed cuckoo from other, similar species (3) (4).

The black-billed cuckoo breeds from Alberta in Canada and Montana in the United States, east to the Maritime Provinces, and south to northern Texas, Arkansas and South Carolina. A migratory species, it spends the winter in western South America. The black-billed cuckoo is a vagrant in western Europe (2) (6).

The black-billed cuckoo is found in woodlands, groves and thickets, often near water, and with a variety of trees, bushes and vines. It is often associated with species such as aspen, poplar, birch, sugar maple, hickory, hawthorn and willow (2) (3) (7) (8).

The black-billed cuckoo preys upon cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, butterflies, fish and wild fruits and berries. It also consumes large numbers of spiny, noxious caterpillars. Often the caterpillar spines become lodged in the stomach wall, so from time to time the stomach lining is shed to get rid of them (2) (7).

Both adult black-billed cuckoos help build the nest, which is constructed from twigs and grasses and lined with leaves, pine needles, stalks, plant fibres, rootlets, mosses and spider webs. Like many other cuckoo species, the black-billed cuckoo occasionally lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The young leave the nest at six or seven days old, and are able to fly at around two weeks of age (2) (9).

As the black-billed cuckoo preys largely upon insects, it is vulnerable to the use of pesticides depleting its prey base. Other threats to this species include the degradation of riparian habitats by water diversion, flood control projects and ground water pumping, as well as deforestation in tropical regions. Urbanisation is a further threat, and during migration the black-billed cuckoo may collide with TV towers and tall buildings (2) (3) (10).

As a result of its large range and large population, the black-billed cuckoo has not been the target of any specific conservation measures. However, in light of its decreasing population trend (1), a number of conservation measures have been recommended for this species. For example, maintaining a diversity of habitats that include large trees as well as hedgerows will benefit this species and its prey base. Reducing the use of chemicals and controlling undesirable pest insects and plants will also improve the quality of its habitat (2) (10).

Find out more about the black-billed cuckoo:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2011)
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Black-billed cuckoo (August, 2011)
  3. Hughes, J.M. (2001) Black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzuserythropthalmus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. Kaufmann, K. (2001) Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  5. Dunn, J. and Alderfer, J.K. (2006) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Books, Washington.
  6. Colorado Division of Wildlife - Black-billed cuckoo (August, 2011)
  7. Peterson, R.T. (2010) Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  8. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative: All Bird Plan - Black-billed cuckoo (August, 2011)
  9. Johnsgard, P.A. (2009) Birds of the Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska.
  10. NatureServe Explorer (August, 2011)