Yellow-billed cuckoos reach a length of 10.5 to 12.5 inches (26 to 32 cm), with a wingspan of 17 inches (43 cm). Their lower mandible (bill) is yellow, and they have a black upper bill that curves slightly downward. Head, neck, back and upper wings are brown, with a white chin, breast and belly. They also have two columns of large white spots on the under side of their long, slender tail. Two toes point forward, the other two point backward.
The varied diet of the yellow-billed cuckoo includes insects (especially hairy caterpillars and cicadas) bird eggs, snails, small frogs, lizards, berries, and some fruit. Predators such as raccoons and jays feed on the cuckoo's eggs, and fledglings are sometimes eaten by raptors. Yellow-billed cuckoos reach sexual maturity in the spring. Mating season lasts from mid-April through mid-September, peaking in May. Nests are saucer-shaped and flimsy, made of twigs and lined with roots and dried leaves, 4 to 8 feet (1 to 2.5 m) above the ground. Females typically lay two to four light blue eggs, about 1.2 inches (31mm) long. Chicks hatch in nine to 11 days. The chicks are altricial (they hatch helpless, blind, and featherless). Within a week of hatching, the chicks can climb into branches and within three weeks, they can fly.
Because they spend winters in mature tropical forests in South America, they are one of the last migratory bird species to arrive in North America. They arrive so late that they have little time to build a nest, select a mate, lay eggs and raise their young. Cuckoos mate with one partner a year. The male courts the female by offering her sticks and other nest building materials. If the female seems receptive, the male will land on her shoulders and place a piece of food in her mouth. Egg laying is timed to occur when caterpillars and other invertebrate prey are most abundant. If food is abundant, the cuckoos will lay more eggs, and they will sometimes use other birds' nests. This is called "nest parasitism." The male takes care of the first fledgling and the female cares for the rest.
The bellow-billed cuckoo's closest relative is the roadrunner. Feathers account for almost half of the yellow-billed cuckoo's body weight. Coccyz is Greek for a "cuckoo" and americanus is the Latin form meaning "of America." Its scientific name means "cuckoo of America."
Open woodlands with dense undergrowth, overgrown orchards and pastures, moist thickets and willow groves along stream banks are the preferred habitat of the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Yellow-billed cuckoos range throughout North, Central and South America. They migrate to North America throughout the summer months, but winter in South America. They can be seen in Texas from April through November.
This shy, slender bird gets its name from the soft coo-coo-coocoo call of the male seeking mates. In some places, it is called the "rain crow" or the "storm crow" because it begins calling right before the summer rains begin. Some destruction of both its breeding grounds in North America and its wintering habitat in South America is limiting the yellow-billed cuckoo. Each year, it has fewer safe places to raise young and to rest and rebuild energy for the long migration to and from its breeding grounds. Few species can survive this double threat. Planting willow and cottonwood saplings, increasing woodland density, could revitalize feeding and nesting sites of the yellow-billed cuckoo.